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Author of 

J. Ramsay MacDonald 









Of the difficulties that surround any attempt to write 
the biography of the living, the writer is acutely aware. 
The justification of such an effort in the present case is 
a sense that the long work of Mr. and Mrs. Webb is, in 
some senses, insufficiently realised by those who have 
entered into its inheritance: that it is eminently worth 
knowing : and that, reviewed as a whole, it casts light both 
fon a world we have wellnigh forgotten — that of the last 
twenty years of the nineteenth century — and on one we 
fiardly yet understand — the stormy progression from the 
pre-war to the post-war period. 

For the narrative that follows, the writer is solely respon- 
sible. Mistakes no doubt there are; if so, the book we 
all eagerly await, in which Mrs. Webb carries on the 
enterprise so brilliantly begun in My Apprenticeship , through 
the ' even more interesting years of Our Partnership , will 
set them right. The subjects bear no kind of responsibility 
for these pages. They have not read them, nor been con- 
sulted about them. On undertaking the work, an enquiry 
was addressed to them as to whether they could bear 
the idea, the reply to which was that “they would rather 
not have a book written about them, but, if it had to be 
done, they did not mind.” ^Since then, they have at least 
been spared any cognisance of the effort to make them 
out. Various of their friends have been good enough 
to talk with the author about them, especially as regards 
their earlier years: for such great kindness, gratitude 
goes to Mr. Bernard Shaw, to the late Professor Graham 



Wallas, to Mr. F. W. Galton, to Mr. W. Stephen Sanders, 
to Mr. and Mrs. C. M. Lloyd, to Mr. E. R. Pease, to Miss 
Susan Lawrence, to the Rt. Hon. A. V. Alexander, to 
Mr. James Middleton and to Dr. Drummond Shiels. 
None of them, however, must be held responsible for any- 
thing but their quoted words. Interpretation and judg- 
ment, like errors in either, or confusions as to fact, go 
to the account of the author only. 

Chelsea , 

Nov., 1932. 




Preface ..... 



Background for a Double Star 



Sidney ..... 



Beatrice ..... 



Challenge to Hedonism 



Trade Union Anatomy 



London Pride .... 

1 1 1 


Controversial .... 



From Owen and Marx to Webb 



The Crusade .... 



The War Years 



Political ..... 



Passfield ..... 



Russia ..... 




Favours to Come 








Almost impossible, nowadays, to think of Sidney and 
Beatrice Webb except as a couple. It is not only that 
they have written, together, books in which no one can 
detach what belongs to one from what belongs to the 
other. They talk, if you meet them, in the dual, almost 
always. 4 'We think,” one will say. “Our idea is . . .” 
the other will go on. Sometimes, one of them gives a 
lecture, the other answers questions on it; on the next 
occasion, the parts will be reversed; but the substance of 
the lecture, and of the answers, will be just the same. 
When they say “we,” the listener knows, no matter who 
uses it, that the number is right; the thinking is, some- 
how, — he does not know quite how — a joint process. Who 
can bring to mind any issue, large or small, on which 
they disagree? They do not look alike; yet one has heard 
that they can interchange shoes, hats and gloves; even 
that, at the period, now remote, when bicycling was the 
rage, Mrs. Webb had a complete outfit available for shocking 
the shockable in her husband’s wardrobe. 

Everyone talks, invariably, of “the Webbs”; and finds 
it hard to believe that this entity ever existed in separate 
parts. They are in fact, and have been, for forty years, 
the brightest example of what she has called a “double- 
star personality, the light of one being indistinguishable 
from that of the other.” The effective fusion of two shining 


minds has, indeed, worked, as he suggested to her in the 
days before it took place, not as a mere sum in addition. 
“One and one make two” she declared. “No, your 
arithmetic is at fault” he retorted. “One and one, side 
by side, in a proper integrated relationship, make not 
two but eleven.” So, in truth, it has proved, although 
to attempt to express the result in any mathematical 
formula is futile, since it is eminently a human result. The 
very completeness of the accomplishment makes it difficult 
now to see the component elements in separation. 

Yet both Sidney and Beatrice had actually been alive, 
and very much alive, for more than thirty years before 
either was aware of the existence of the other. They 
grew up in England, in her case largely, in his wholly, 
in London, but in worlds that knew not how the other 
lived ; worlds between which, at that date, yawned a social 
gulf that, despite philanthropies and social reform move- 
ments and conscientious stirrings in many minds, was 
practically impassable. He was a product of London’s 
mean streets; she of England’s country houses. What 
made it worse was that he seriously professed opinions 
which, in the early ’nineties, were not respectable. Socialism, 
in the mouth of a young lady of assured position and social 
charm, was not taken seriously. When, as with Mr. Webb, 
it must be taken seriously, it was dangerous. Beatrice 
Potter dared not tell her dying father that she was engaged 
to a Socialist; it would have poisoned his last hours. Herbert 
Spencer, her oldest friend, revised his intention of making 
her his literary executor when he found that f she intended 
to do so awful a thing. Many of her friends simply thought 
she must be mad. For them, the social gulf made the 
thing impossible. The more impossible that she was not 
only “one of us” : she was a predestined leader. Belonging, 
as she did, by birth, by wealth, by upbringing and con- 
nexion, to the governing class into which her eight sisters 


had duly married, she had, in addition, personal attributes 
— good looks, brains (possibly rather too obvious) and 
social talents — marking her out as a hostess and grande 
dame , which made her action really treachery. 

So some thought. There were however, others. Socialism 
was not respectable. That was, for some, its one title 
to respect. They did not know much about it: but, if 
it was not respectable it was so far, good. The ’nineties had 
their iconoclasts. If they were few, they were shrill. Isms 
of all sorts flourished, fostered and tended by eager sects. 
There were coteries — earnest, humanitarian, artistic, — with 
which it was an article of faith that any day might witness 
a general smashing of conventions and accepted ideas. 
While the aesthetic movement was leading some to feed on 
lilies and clothe themselves in odd garments, dyed and 
made by hand, others were flocking east to Toynbee Hall, 
which the Barnetts had founded in 1885 as a challenge to 
the Charity Organisation Society and all its ways and works. 
There, grave young men were saving their souls by debating 
at night with Marxian tailors, lest they should lose them in 
the Civil Service during the day. For them, Miss Potter 
seemed to be waving a grand banner of defiance. 

In any event, the marriage was a nine days’ conversa- 
tional theme. Its real interest, as is the case with any 
marriage, depended on an acquaintance with the characters 
and histories of the principals, such as few of those who 
chatted about it possessed. A certain number of persons 
thought that they knew all about Beatrice: few and far 
between were those who claimed any such knowledge of 
Sidney. Children of their age of course they both were: 
indeed, in eminent degree typical of it. If it had treated 
them very differently up to the time of their meeting, 
they did yet share a common mental climate. That was 
important, since, unlike as they were in background and 
in upbringing, in the place from which they had come 


and the route along which they had travelled, they were 
and are alike in one respect. Not only had they reached 
the same intellectual resting-place; to do so was of vital 
significance, in either case. To both of them Descartes’s 
superb assertion fully applies. Cogito ergo sum: I think, 
therefore I am : it is not a phrase descriptive of the majority 
of humans. It is, it was, descriptive of Sidney Webb and 
of Beatrice Potter. If it accounts for their difficulty in 
understanding other people it also is the secret of their 
instant recognition when they met, and of the “integrated 
relationship” they were able to build on that recognition. 

Of course, in the ’nineties — in that respect very unlike 
the nineteen-thirties, — people, whether or no they did think, 
believed sincerely that they ought to do so, that they could, 
and that great results would come of the process. There was 
an immense amount of cogitation going on. This belief 
that thinking could find a way, coupled with a general, 
confident optimism about the result, make the characteristic 
colour of the mental climate of the ’eighties and ’nineties. 
It was the climate in which both Sidney and Beatrice 
grew up, and is in degree the climate they have, thanks to 
their association, maintained round themselves ever since. 

We are apt, nowadays, to talk of mid-Victorian com- 
placency. Complacency is not however really the right 
word, so far as the last two decades of the nineteenth century 
are concerned. Smugness did persist, but it was being 
assailed from every side. Then everybody, it is true, 
believed, formally at any rate, in Democracy: but there 
was no other social or economic arrangerrfent, and few 
moral or intellectual prescriptions, not being challenged. 
But while some challenged, everybody hoped, and most 
people believed in something or other. The mood of the 
challengers was one of confidence. There was a robust 
moral infusion in the most devastating criticism being 
offered of any specific institution or belief. In the social 


field, the seed sown by Carlyle and Ruskin, Dickens and 
Darwin, was sprouting vigorously in lively looking seeds. 
If many were troubled about their souls, and more about 
the souls of their fellows, the outlook was fundamentally 
cheerful. Evils there were, but they could be remedied: 
above all, by the resolute use of intelligence, science and 
good will. Man might be the creature of his environment, 
but he had power to change it: wider knowledge, more 
science, would surely see him growing in stature and in 
scope. So, the general effect of scientific discovery, the 
emergence of a scientific attitude, and the whole body 
of new views as to the nature of the universe identified 
with the names of Darwin, Tyndall, Huxley and the rest, 
was to make men feel that while an immense number of 
things needed doing, they could be done. 

Everything mattered. Everyone had a great but also 
a joyous responsibility. The new world opening out was 
far richer, so it seemed, as well as far more various and 
interesting than the old. With the swift development of 
means of international communication of every kind, it 
was beginning to be the integrated modern world, without 
yet having become either so large or so dense and tight 
as to blast the imagination. It was a world in which 
everything was open to question and nothing taken for 
granted, although the questioners could still hug the joy 
of feeling themselves to be in a minority — bold bands of 
revolutionaries in an environment on which they could 
look down. Whether Wagner, who died in 1883, was a 
mere wilful cacophonist or a bold widener of the boundaries 
of music : whether Whistler was enriching or merely insulting 
the public taste: these were matters of exhilarating con- 
troversy. There were fierce discussions, of impassioned 
gravity, on the relations between art and morality, such 
as are inconceivable to-day, when everyone feels he is an 
artist, if only in “life,” and there is no morality. The 


new waves beating on the old shores still reached Britain 
with a considerable time-lag: here, in 1888, Robert Elsmere was 
discussed by eminent persons as a bold and troubling problem 
novel, while Ibsen’s Ghosts , which fluttered the intellectual 
dovecotes of Europe in 1881, had to wait ten years before 
it was given a single performance in London, and that in 
defiance of the Censor. But that only added to the fun. 

The combined assault of the new science and the new 
art led to a vast stirring of consciences, for conscience was 
still taken for granted, as a normal constituent of human 
anatomy. Out of this stirring, in the main, arose what 
was known as the “ Social Reform” movement. Political 
democracy was an accepted fact. True, the centre of 
power had not really shifted; control and direction were 
in the hands of landowning captains of industry, like 
Richard Potter: Prime Ministers still came, inevitably, 
from the great public schools: Trade Union was a word 
of fear: workmen were only timidly, in ones and twos, 
penetrating into Parliament, as Liberals. Formal democracy 
however was completed, so far as the males in the nation 
were concerned. Town artisans like Sidney Webb’s father 
were enfranchised in 1867, after smashing the railings of 
Hyde Park: their brethren in the countryside followed in 
1885. Women, of course, had to wait for recognition as 
citizens for another quarter of a century and a world- 
shattering war. Yet there was a formidable agitation 
going on for their inclusion, and, the door of higher educa- 
tion having been successfully forced, rational minds, like 
those of Richard Potter, saw small sense #n a franchise 
which excluded highly intelligent women like his daughters. 
True, his argument was that they would vote Tory, like 
himself, and so help to stem the tide of illiterate workmen; 
true, too, the ablest of those same daughters publicly 
disagreed with him. When it could be said that women 
did not want the vote, it was not surprising that the general 


sense of the ’nineties blandly saw democracy as a democracy 
of men. As such, however, great things were expected of it. 

With the new faith in progress went a new faith in 
government. Although it still dominated the minds of 
the official governing class, by the ’eighties and ’nineties, 
the Benthamite-Mill dispensation was wearing itself out. 
Herbert Spencer threw up a last rampart of Individualism, 
the more imposing at the time because it was so soon 
to be washed away. The scientific theory of environment 
co-operated with the humanitarian drift of feeling and 
the confident belief in knowledge as the instrument of 
progress to create an outlook among the younger generation 
to which Spencer’s The Man versus the State was repulsive, 
if not absurd. Individualism, fatalist and essentially pessimist 
was beginning to be an uncomfortable strait-jacket for the 
new, scientific optimism. That optimism in its turn 
found its natural expression in various forms of collective 
action. So, it is to the new faith in ordered progress that 
one must refer both the steady march of social reform 
legislation of various kinds, the growth of voluntary associa- 
tions, like Trade Unions and Co-operative Societies, the 
steady extension of public provision by the provincial 
municipalities, and the rise of new political movements. 
The 1870 Education Act had made primary schooling 
compulsory, that of ten years later made it free, although 
it remained unorganised on any national plan. Factory 
and Public Health legislation made great inroads on the 
presumed right of the individual to “do as he likes with 
his own”; the notion of a minimum social code began to 
dawn on many minds. In the field of local government, 
in cities like Birmingham, Bradford and Glasgow, to name 
only these, collective provision to meet citizen needs was 
going ahead fast, if not as yet in London. Radicalism, in 
Birmingham, threw up a veritable hero in Joseph Chamber- 
lain: and Chamberlain, with his “home town” achievements 


in Collectivism behind him, at one time toyed with a national 
programme which, in its emphasis on the public ownership of 
the land, showed plainly the influence of Henry George. 

Henry George influenced the mind of the workman, 
very deeply: it was a sure instinct that took John Ruskin 
to meet him, when he landed in England in 1882. George 
affected that mind far more deeply than did Marx, who, 
like Lenin after him, worked, unknown, in London, and 
died there, unknown, in 1883. But a more powerful 
influence than that of any revolutionary was arising out 
of the realisation of how the vast majority of the citizens 
of the richest city and country in the then world were 
actually living. Pictures like that in Darkest England or 
The Bitter Cry of Outcast London might be dismissed as sen- 
timental and exaggerated, but the results of the great 
and thoroughly scientific enquiry into the Metropolis 
undertaken by Charles Booth in 1886 could not be so 
dismissed. His demonstration, by statistical measurements 
based on a most thorough scrutiny, that in London no 
less than thirty per cent of the population were living 
below the poverty line, administered a most painful shock 
to optimists and pessimists alike. Poverty, degraded and 
degrading, and poverty in ‘'widest commonalty spread” 
was suddenly realised, as an appalling fact. Hard upon 
this followed the great London Dock Strike of 1889. Revolt 
had stirred, first, among some of the weakest, worst-paid, 
and least organised workers. The fiery eloquence of 
Mrs. Besant put heart into the match-girls: their heroic 
example, and its amazing success, fired the dockers. The 
1889 strike is a turning-point, not only in the history 
of Trade Unionism, whose centre of gravity it shifted 
from the skilled craftsman to what the Americans call 
“common labour”; it is a turning-point in social and 
economic history. Public opinion, almost for the first 
time, was definitely and declaredly with the strikers, and 


that public opinion won the strike. Cardinal Manning 
intervened on their side; two highly distinguished civil 
servants — Vaughan Nash and Hubert Llewelyn Smith — 
wrote the history of the affair: the thing had all the move- 
ment of an exciting drama. But there was more in it 
than that. Suddenly, people not previously interested in 
politics, became aware of what Carlyle had called, in a 
phrase to be revived in the opening years of the new century, 
“the condition of England question Even in drawing- 
rooms, the word Socialism began to be muttered, although 
few as yet were prepared to say at all clearly what it meant. 

Very slowly did any of these influences percolate through 
to the world of professional politicians. The Gladstonian 
Government that fell in 1886 was largely absorbed in 
non-domestic issues, like Egypt, South Africa, and, above 
all, Home Rule for Ireland. It was further, from first 
to last, distracted by the bitter controversy arising out 
of the refusal of that stormy petrel, Charles Bradlaugh, 
to take the Oath. Secularism, Birth Control, Socialism — 
Bradlaugh, with the able assistance of Annie Besant, 
powerfully confused the issues, and raised a prodigious 
dust of prejudice and passion. Ireland, again, dominated 
the parliamentary scene throughout the life of the Con- 
servative Government between 1886 and 1892. Those 
who were deeply stirred about social facts and economic 
issues became more and more exasperated, fell more and 
more into revolt, inclined more and more to cry “A plague 
o’ both your houses!”. Something was wrong, and it 
was more deep seated than the orthodox politician was 
willing to see; but, given sight and will, it could be righted. 

In their different ways, this was the feeling that was 
burning in the mind of two remarkable young people — 
Sidney Webb, then a clerk in the Colonial Office; and 
Beatrice Potter, a young lady, nominally of leisure, in a 
mansion in Monmouthshire. 



If questioning and argumentation about it and about 
were vital constituents in the mental life of the ’eighties, 
nowhere were they so active and constant as in the Metrop- 
olis. London, at that time, was still, so far as its working 
population went, a Radical focus. The influence of Francis 
Place and John Stuart Mill lived on, in countless Radical 
clubs. It was in London that Charles Booth was carrying 
out his enquiry: in London that John Burns and Tom 
Mann were preaching the New Unionism and assailing 
the old Unions as mere “middle-class rate-reducing 
institutions”; there that H. M. Hvndman, in his frock- 
coat and immaculate tall hat, was thundering at the 
Proletariat that they had nothing to lose but their chains. 
Hvndman, of course, spoke as the high priest of the Social 
Democratic Federation. The S.D.F. enjoys two distinc- 
tions. It was the earliest definitely Socialist Society to 
be founded in England, since it was born in 1 88 1 . To 
work for and through it, William Morris devoted some 
of the best years of his life. He did so because the very 
intensity of his concern for aesthetic \jalues made him 
feel that society must be so re-organised as to make them 
accessible to all men, or else it and they must perish together. 
Convinced that only Socialism could give the world the 
art that is the expression of man's joy in labour, he loyally 
took his part in the donkey work of the only body then 
working for it. He was compelled, later, to quarrel with 
the S.D.F. partly because they stood for a dogmatic 




Marxism in which he, in that a typical Briton, could 
not believe : partly because quarrelling among leaders 
has been almost a law of life with the S.D.F. Anyhow, 
the revolutionary claims of the Federation looked more 
than a little dubious to the workman elector when, at 
the time of the 1886 General Election, the Social Demo- 
cratic Federation ran two candidates, and made no secret 
of the fact that the expenses of these contests had, in 
either case, been paid by one of the old political parties 
for the purpose of upsetting the other. Irrationally, 
perhaps, Tory gold stank even more disagreeably than 
Liberal, in London nostrils: it stank the more that it was 
wasted, the two purchased candidates polling but 57 
votes between them. Difficult to believe in the Red Menace 
after that. 

This incident, moreover, occurred just at the wrong 
time. The two following years were years of slump and 
acute distress. For the first time, a really serious menace, 
that of Unemployment, appeared not in the Metropolis 
only but all over the country; indeed, all over the world. 
Bomb throwing in Chicago coincided with demonstrations 
in London and other cities. On “Bloody Sunday,” the 
demonstrators came into collision with the police: John 
Burns, Cunninghame-Graham and H. H. Champion 
were arrested and sent to prison — a fact that was to make 
Burns a genuine hero with the working class for many 
years to come. The trouble looked grave at the time, 
and although it subsided with the revival of trade, the 
ferment and unrest went on. Every reader of the news- 
papers became familiar with the names of great outdoor 
orators like Hyndman, Champion, Cunninghame-Graham, 
John Burns, Tom Mann, and Ben Tillett. Many knew 
by sight the long-bearded, black-coated apostle of Revolu- 
tionary Marxism, with his impressive white cuffs: some, 
the handsome and aristocratic figure of the lineal descendant 


of Scottish kings; while far more had seen the flashing 
dark eyes, and thrilled to the magnetic eloquence of John 
Burns in Hyde Park or on Tower Hill. Indeed, John 
Burns, in his twenties and early thirties — he was born in 
1859 — wa s, with a. J. Balfour, the Tiger Lily of “resolute 
Government ” in Ireland, Jo Chamberlain, the arch- 
priest of Birmingham Radicalism and Collective efficiency, 
and Charles Stewart Parnell, then moving swiftly towards 
his tragic end, among the most picturesque and challenging 
figures of the day. It was of them people talked, as the 
men of the future. There were, of course, those who pinned 
hopes, of a more sober kind, on the bright young lawyers 
beginning to be heard at Westminster, H. H. Asquith 
and R. B. Haldane; others, again, who believed that 
Mill’s mantle had descended upon the somewhat sloping 
shoulders of John Morley. 

Few and far between were those who guessed that the 
most potent ferment for the future was actually being 
brewed, not by any of these, but by a small band of young 
men who, seeking no publicity and very largely concerned 
still with their own education, were assiduously creating, 
fostering and feeding nascent Socialism in London. As 
one of them was to say, many years later, 

“We were young in those days . . . and I suppose as eagerly 
presumptuous as young people ought to be. We spent what free 
time we had, after earning our daily bread, in reading and 
talking — in studying everything from blue-books to art, from 
history and politics to novels and poetry; and perpetually dis- 
cussing and lecturing, among ourselves, and before anybody 
who would listen to us.” 1 

They not only talked restlessly: they read, they studied, 
they observed, they ground their minds against hard 
facts, they amassed facts, they revelled in them; and thus 

1 Preface to 1920 Edition, Fabian Essays , by Sidney Webb. 



trained themselves into a formidable efficiency. Contact 
with one another preserved and strengthened, in all of 
them, a saving sense of humour. They were not out to 
frighten, but to convert; they presented their novel notion 
in a form the more insinuating that it was not, and was 
not meant to be, alarming. They were not dreary. Propa- 
ganda they found and made tremendous fun. Outstanding 
among them was a quartette — George Bernard Shaw, 
Sidney Webb, Sydney Olivier and Graham Wallas. Shaw 
was first on the field. He had come from Ireland to London 
in the late ’seventies, his professional occupation at the 
time being that of musical and dramatic critic, although 
his shabby portmanteau was bulging with MSS. plays 
and novels. He it is who has, also, written, in various 
forms, most of the history of these bright early days: and 
drawn the most vivid picture of the man whom he always 
regarded as the master-mind in the group, who was to 
be his closest friend and associate for the next half century 
• — Sidney Webb. Sidney Webb he first saw in action, 
in 1879, when barely twenty. 

Shaw joined, among other groups of the kind, a body 
which called itself by the resounding name of the Zetetical 
Society. This was a sort of junior offshoot of the then 
famous Hampstead Dialectical Society — a club for the 
discussion of political and social questions, and Shaw, 
at any rate, joined it for the purpose of learning to speak. 
There, a few weeks later, an individual took part in one 
of the debates who roused his keenest interest. Fortunately, 
he has described him: 

“The speaker was a young man of about twenty-one, rather 
below middle height, with small pretty hands and feet, and a 
profile that suggested, on account of the nose and imperial, an 
improvement upon Napoleon the Third. He had a fine forehead, 
a long head, eyes that were built on top of two highly developed 
organs of speech (according to the phrenologists) and remark- 


ably thick strong dark hair. He knew all about the subject of 
the debate; knew more than the lecturer; knew more than 
anybody present; had read everything that had ever been written 
on the subject; and remembered all the facts that bore upon it. 
He used notes, read them, ticked them off one by one and threw 
them away, and finished with a coolness and clearness that to 
me, in my then trembling state, seemed miraculous. This young 
man was the ablest man in England — Sidney Webb.” 

Shaw, deeply impressed, was by no means disposed to 
leave the matter at that. On the contrary, by his own 
account, he proceeded “to force my friendship on Sidney 
Webb — the most successful thing I ever did.” Why was 
no far-seeing Max or Low alive at the time to draw pictures 
of these two, as in the years that followed, with the friend- 
ship established, they went about together, at work and at 
play? For there was plenty of play, as well as a great deal 
of hard work. They w r ent on holidays — to Holland, where 
Shaw made Webb look at pictures: and to Obcrammergau, 
where he refused to be taken for walks but sat in the hotel 
writing letters. They w r cre a veritable Damon and Pythias 
for the next ten years. Though an intimate, it w'as not 
an exclusive friendship. Very soon they had drawn in 
two other young men, very different in background but 
full, like them, of ardent political and social passion, 
whom they caught as they came down from Oxford — 
Graham Wallas and Sydney Olivier: and the duo expanded 
to a quartette. An amazing quartette it was: with some- 
thing of the carefree intensity of the immortal Musketeers, 
to wdiom it has oftened been likened. Not all the parts 
fit. If G. B. S. with his red head and Irish impudence, 
is an obvious D’Artagnan, and Sydney Olivier, tall, dark 
and gravely handsome, an inevitable Athos, there was not 
much but his height to make a Porthos of Graham Wallas, 
totally devoid of his prototype’s engaging vanity. On the 
other hand, if Sidney Webb, on no better showing than 



the “pretty hands and feet” which Shaw ‘spotted* and 
a stature diminutive by comparison with that of the other 
three, has to be Aramis, he had, even at this date, some 
of the statesmanlike qualities of the future Bishop of Vannes. 

His ‘origins’ are much harder to trace than those of 
any of his friends; and, when traced, seem much less 
hopeful. He comes out of the stratum of purely English 
life which is most mysterious — the respectable, ‘superior’, 
lower middle class, which ‘keeps itself to itself’, appals 
while it baffles the foreigner, and exists in a manner which 
the home-grown intellectual finds terrifying to contemplate 
in its inartistic extension. These ‘origins’, he has never 
illuminated. Unlike his future partner, he has never 
written and is certain never to write, any kind of auto- 
biography. True, to The St. Martin s Review in the winter 
of 1928, he contributed some pieces which, most mis- 
leadingly, he called ‘Reminiscences’, but about himself 
they record practically nothing. When he starts with a 
bare fact about himself — and that is rare — it is only to 
switch off, instantly, to some institution, or general observed 
train of facts and consequences, from which he never 
comes back. At any time, the pronoun “I” is the word 
in the language figuring least frequently either in his 
speaking or writing. About himself — that theme which 
nearly everyone finds so fluent — he is invincibly reticent. 
In these so-called ‘Reminiscences’ he starts off with a gem: 

“ Let me say at once that I have no intention of writing an auto- 
biography. I am, 1 believe, ‘not that sort.’ Indeed, I have very 
little knowledge of what has happened to me internally. I am, 
I suppose, what is nowadays called an extrovert. Things im- 
pinge on me, and I re-act to the impact, occasionally, with ideas 
and suggestions that prove interesting.” 

“Occasionally,” here, is manna for the thirsty biographer. 
But it is all he gets. So, the outline of the “impacts and 
re-actions” of the first twenty years of his life has to be 


purely external, and bare to a degree. That, no doubt, 
is as he would wish. 

He is, to begin with, purely English: as English as an 
Englishman can well be. Many people, both when he 
was young and throughout his career, have assumed 
that he is Jewish, on no better evidence than his appear- 
ance. True, that appearance — the thick nose and lips, 
abundant hair, small stature, and sensitive hands and 
feet, the eyes concealed by eye-glasses, far from straightly 
set on his nose, and attached to a cord, often knotted 
and broken, which, since he never removes them, serves 
no obvious useful purpose — does, at a first glance, give 
him the air not only of a Jew but a Jew of Continental 
origin. Abroad, he passes easily as either a German or 
a Frenchman: at an International Conference, his is 
certainly not one of the figures one would pick out as 
characteristically British Empire. But, apart from his 
industry, his amazing memory and equally amazing 
power of finding the right word and tracking every nuance 
of meaning through the appropriate shading of language 
to express it, he is markedly deficient in Jewish traits of 
mind or character. He is not artistic; he is indifferent 
to money; he much prefers the knowledge of facts to 
the possession of cash; unassuming, modest and disinterested, 
he is totally devoid of personal ‘ push \ 

The evidence of his ancestry, anyhow, disposes of the 
hypothesis. On both sides, the line of descent is purely 
English: Anglo-Saxon English. His forbears came from 
East Anglia, and from Kent. His grandfather on the 
paternal side was a Kentish inn-keeper; a cousin was a 
professional cricketer. His maternal grandfather was a 
small, very small, property owner in Suffolk. 

From Who's Who , and from the Election documents in 
which candidates are compelled to set out those full “given” 
names which they may, or may not, use in daily life, it 



appears that the child born in London on July 13th, 1859, 
was named Sidney James, and was the second in a family 
of three, coming between Charles and Ada. London is 
a large, generalised term; but little Sidney James was 
born “in the very middle of London, in one of its most 
densely populated areas”: in fact, in Cranbourn Street, 
Leicester Square. There, his mother carried on, as she 
had done before her marriage, a hairdressing business. 
Left an orphan as a youngish woman, she refused to live 
idly and uncomfortably with relations; instead, she removed 
herself from East Anglia, and, borrowing enough money 
for the purpose from a brother-in-law, set up shop in 
London. Evidently a woman of efficiency, she made a 
success of her enterprise, in a modest way : the shop was 
a briskly going concern by the time that she met and 
married Mr. Webb, in 1854. He belonged to an entirely 
different type. A man of ardent intellectual interests, 
he was a great reader and a keen Radical. John Stuart 
Mill was his hero, as later his younger son’s; he was 
one of Mill’s staunch supporters at the time of the 
famous Westminster election, when, on being asked by a 
hostile questioner at a meeting whether “It was true 
that he had said all working men were liars,” Mill courage- 
ously replied “Yes.” An accountant by profession, Mr. 
Webb senior, in spite of none too robust health, spent 
much of his time and energy on unpaid public work. 
He was both a Vestryman and a member of the local 
Board of Guardians: one of those selfless persons, without 
personal ambition or ‘drive’, on whom hard and thankless 
jobs tend to be put. He did them well: he had all kinds 
of efficiencies. For instance, he was rather surprisingly 
a crack shot; and Sidney, out of piety was, at one stage, 
a volunteer — though not a crack shot. 

In the Cranbourn Street household, the little, rose- 
cheeked mother was, evidently, the active partner; but 


there are no indications, despite her domestic and pro- 
fessional efficiency, that she was one whit more worldly- 
minded than her husband. In some respects, certainly, 
she was well ahead of her times and her circumstances. 
Not only did she give the children plain, good food: she 
insisted on cold baths and open windows, at a time when 
such things were commonly thought to be dangerous. 
Moreover, the boys — it was too early to expect equal treat- 
ment for a girl — were sent abroad, to learn languages. 
Both Charles and Sidney were thus despatched to Switzer- 
land, to acquire French: and, later, to the house of a 
pastor at Wisnar, in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, for German. 
On the way to Germany, Sidney, as a boy, was wrecked 
in the Baltic. Charles, on the strength of his languages, 
became a foreign correspondence clerk in a big London 
house; Sidney was to use the instrument for other purposes. 

London, inevitably, coloured and largely constituted the 
boy’s education. 

“After a few lessons at my mother’s knee, which I do not remem- 
ber, I had taught myself to read at an early age, very largely from 
the books and notices displayed in the shop windows, a source 
of endless interest. It used to take me a full hour to get the whole 
length of Fleet Street, so absorbing were the pages of the peri- 
odicals there exposed to view. I found more instruction in the 
reputedly arid pages of Kelly’s London Directory, then already 
a ponderous tome, than in any other single volume to which 
my childhood had access. It was from the steps of St. Martin’s 
Church that, as a very little boy, I saw my first Lord Mayor’s 
Show. I remember my mother telling me on that occasion — and 
it seems to have sunk in — that if I was a good boy, I might myself 
one day be Lord Mayor! In short, I grew up a patriotic Lon- 
doner, very early declaring that no place on earth (I knew 
nothing about any other place) would content me for habitation, 
other than the very middle of London that I knew .” 1 

It was through his observant eyes, and through books, 
that most of his education came to him. With his hands, 

1 Reminiscences by S. and B. Webb. St. Martin's Review , December, 1928. 



he never possessed any skill, never did he achieve enough 
even to drive in a nail with accuracy or assurance, or 
to mend a bicycle puncture. His schooling pursued the 
normal course, and included Sunday school. There, as 
in the ordinary school, he won rows of prizes; many years 
later, his secretary, rather to his surprise, found that he 
had, for these volumes — Christy s Old Organ and the like — 
a queer tenderness. The books at 41, Grosvenor Road 
were having their annual dusting ; when the bottom shelves 
were emptied, and their contents exposed, various such 
works were disclosed. “ Get rid of them,” said Mrs. Webb, 
with ruthless common-sense. Sidney demurred. “I don’t 
think we will,” he murmured; and in the end, retrieved 
them all, and stowed them — perhaps for greater safety — 
behind other volumes. 

School days at the City of London school came, all 
too early, to an end. Classes at the Birkbeck Institute 
had to be broken by a change for the worse in the family 
circumstances; at sixteen, it was necessary for Sidney to 
become a wage-earner. Assisted by his knowledge of 
French and German, he got a post as a clerk in the City 
office of a Colonial broker. There, however, he did not 
stay for long. Assiduously, he went on with his studies. 
His gift for rapid reading and secure assimilation and 
memorisation of whatever he read that interested him — 
and nearly everything did — stood him in good stead. 
He attended London University evening classes, after 
working hours were over; and, in 1878, sat for the Open 
Competitive Examination for the Civil Service. As a 
result, he won a place in the War Office, as what was 
then known as a Second Division clerk. His examination 
efficiency was formidable. Not only did he invariably 
come out at the top: he literally ‘mopped up’ exhibitions, 
scholarships and prizes. A year later, he again sat for 
examination, and was again successful, being transferred 


a stage higher in the official hierarchy, to a post in the 
office of Surveyor of Taxes. In this capacity, he ‘assessed’ 
Robert Browning, who protested, successfully: proving 
that his earnings from poetry did not bring him within 
the income-tax paying category. It was at this stage in 
his career that G. B. S. heard him, at the Zetetical Society, 
and found him already possessed both of a mine of exact 
knowledge and of an unrivalled capacity for setting it 
forth in words of precision. In the following year, he 
again essayed the Open Competition, this time under 
the Playfair Scheme for promotion from grade to grade. 
As a result, another barrier was down; he passed up into 
the First Division, the present Administrative grade, — 
passed so high that he could have entered the Foreign 
Office. In the Colonial Office, — which he actually chose, 
on advice — he had among his colleagues Sydney Olivier, 
who had entered the service by the normal route, from 
the University. There he worked, for the next ten years, 
until he left the Civil Service, to take up public work 
on a larger, freer stage. 

About the course of his own mental development, in 
these formative years, he has made no revelations to the 
world, beyond a generous acknowledgment of his debt to 
John Stuart Mill. About himself, in any connexion, he 
has, at any time, talked less than any other public man 
of equal or approaching eminence. The indications of 
his written work, as of his speech, whether public or private, 
go to suggest that he would prefer to remain always 
anonymous. At any and every stage in his career, he 
is to be found, again and again, writing papers and doing 
heavy work for which he neither gets nor desires to get, 
the credit. Nothing, in this, either of timidity or shyness. 
No one could be less timid, and he is far too unselfconscious 
to be shy. Indeed, this alliance, in his make-up, of powerful 
and comprehensive mental ability with genuine disin- 



terestedness, an ingrained and transparently native modesty 
and a complete indifference to his own personal position 
in the world, presents a phenomenon so unusual that he 
has, constantly, been accused of being Machiavellian. 
For this there is no better evidence than the fact that he 
has an authentic preference for getting things done to 
being seen as doing them. He really is the “ unassuming 
expert”: the man who desires both to know, and to serve, 
for its own sake. One can see both this strong sense of 
duty — remarkable in that it included public as well as 
private duty — and this real indifference to the world’s 
ratings or its rewards, as part of his inheritance from 
both father and mother, lifted, in his case, to a higher 
potency by mental endowments rarely found in com- 
bination with just that type of moral metal. He has a 
passion for knowledge, but also a passion for service. He 
does not want to keep what he knows to himself: he wants 
to communicate it. To that end, he not only studied 
intensively, history, economics and law — taking, as it 
were in his stride, an LL.B. degree at London University 
some time in the mid-’eighties; — he also taught himself 
to expound what he knew by giving unpaid lectures at 
the London Workingmen’s College. Nevertheless, there 
was the danger that, left to himself, he might have remained 
the expert. But he was not to be left to himself. That 
he was not to be so left was made certain by his rare faculty 
for corporate effectiveness; a faculty which is not, of 
course, purely mental. He was eminently “good to work 
with” and people are not good to work with unless they 
possess certain humane attributes. Among these a sense 
of humour ranks high, and he has plenty of humour, of 
his own special brand. Add to that a real power of enjoy- 
ment, a zest in the exercise of faculty, an immense gift 
for finding interest everywhere, boredom almost nowhere, 
a temper not easily exasperated, and a disposition to 


find the world a good, or at worst, a supremely interesting 

Bernard Shaw tells two stories of Sidney Webb as a 
young man, which are highly illuminating. When he 
was a Colonial Office clerk, he and Shaw were on holiday 
in France. To the post office Webb, talking French 
admirably and looking quite like a French bourgeois, 
conveyed a vast parcel of official papers. These, he insisted, 
could go through the post for a halfpenny. The clerk 
protested. He insisted. If the code were consulted, it 
would be found that para. X on p. X vol. X, entitled him 
to despatch official papers at this rate. The clerk, impressed, 
wavered : consulted his superior. That functionary brought 
down the volume cited — and, of course, Webb was right. 
After that, as Shaw says, he could have posted all his 
laundry home for a halfpenny. 

The other story is even more interesting. Again the 
two were abroad together; this time in Haarlem, in a 
tram. Into this tram, a young man consigned to prison, 
was brought by his guard. He was not handcuffed but 
to his wrists a long chain was fastened. Plainly he was 
wretched, selfconscious, ashamed, an outcast. The tram 
stopped near the prison: he was led out by his guard, 
between the long lines of other passengers, looking about 
him miserably. Suddenly, his head lifted, his expression 
cleared, something almost like a smile played over his 
lips. He had recovered his self-respect. How had this 
happened? The explanation was simple. Earlier in 
the day Shaw and Webb had, as travellers will, purchased 
a large piece of marzipan. They had eaten enough: 
perhaps even a trifle too much. Yet a large lump remained, 
bulging in Sidney’s pocket. As the young prisoner was 
led past him, he had stuffed the sweet into his hand. 

This warm humanity rather than his superb efficiency, 
bound Shaw, Olivier and Wallas to him, and made 



their association closer than a mere working partner- 
ship: they were a band of brothers. The others, fully 
recognising his gifts, were by no means disposed to allow 
them to bloom unseen. The Fabian Society provided 
just the right garden. 

In the earliest discussion which led to the foundation 
of this famous body, none of the quartette participated. 
Nor had they any part in the division that took place 
inside the earliest group, between those primarily con- 
cerned with individual moral perfectibility, who went 
off into the Fellowship of the New Life, and those primarily 
interested in the reconstruction of society on new social 
principles, who remained to constitute the Fabian Society. 
Social organisation, rather than the “highest moral possi- 
bilities,” would certainly have been the banner under 
which Sidney Webb would, instinctively, have ranged 
himself, although banners were never in his line, and 
the approach developed by the Fabians suited him, indeed 
was largely made by him, in its rejection of anything of 
the sort. 

The earliest debates of the society, says Mr. E. R. Pease, 
their historian, were “in the main on things abstract or 
Utopian.” But in March 1885 Sidney Webb resolutely 
brought them down to earth in a paper which he read, 
called The Way Out . Two months later, about a year 
therefore, after G. B. S., he was elected a member; within 
a year he was, like Shaw, on the Executive, where he 
has remained ever since. Sydney Olivier joined almost 
at the same time as he did; Graham Wallas a little later. 
Among other outstanding Fabians of these early, highly 
argumentative days, were Hubert Bland, William Clarke, 
Harold Cox, and Annie Besant. The total membership 
in the mid-’eighties was only forty. 

Of the outlook and habit of mind of the Fabian at this 
epoch, Shaw has drawn a vivid picture. 



“In 1885 our differences were latent or instinctive: and we 
denounced the Capitalists as thieves . . . and, among our- 
selves, talked revolution, anarchism, labour notes versus pass- 
books, and all the rest of it, on the tacit assumption that the 
object of our campaign, with its watch-words/ Educate, Agitate, 
Organise/ was to bring about a tremendous smash-up of existing 
society, to be succeeded by complete Socialism. And this meant 
that we had no true practical understanding either of existing 
society or of Socialism. Without being quite definitely aware of 
this, we yet felt it to a certain extent all along; for it was at this 
period that we contracted the invaluable habit of freely laughing 
at ourselves which has always distinguished us, and which has 
saved us from becoming hampered by the gushing enthusiasts 
who mistake their own emotions for public movements. From the 
first, such people fled after one glance at us, declaring that we 
were not serious. Our preference for practical suggestions and 
criticisms, and our impatience of all general expressions of sym- 
pathy with working-class aspirations, not to mention our way of 
chaffing our opponents in preference to denouncing them as 
enemies of the human race, repelled from us some warm-hearted 
and eloquent Socialists, to whom it seemed callous and cynical 
to be even commonly self-possessed in the presence of the 
sufferings upon which Socialists make w r ar. But there w r as far 
too much equality and personal intimacy among the Fabians 
to allow' of any member presuming to get up and preach at the 
rest in the fashion which the working classes still tolerate sub- 
missively from their leaders. We knew that a certain sort of 
oratory was useful for ‘stoking up’ public meetings; but we 
needed no stoking up, and when any orator tried the process 
on us, soon made him understand that he was wasting his time 
and ours. I, for one, should be very sorry to lower the intellectual 
standard of the Fabian by making the atmosphere of its public 
discussions the least bit more congenial to stale declamation 
than it is at present. If our debates are to be kept wholesome, 
they cannot be too irreverent or too critical. And the irrever- 
ence, which has become traditional with us, comes down from 
those early days when we often talked such nonsense that we 
could not help laughing at ourselves.” 1 

Inside the Fabian Society — whose papers were, at one 
stage, kept in a drawer in the Colonial Office — real hard 

1 The Fabian Society : Its Early History. Tract No. 41, by Bernard Shaw. 



debating and close discussion went on. The famous 
Four did not only meet and argue there, however; they 
were incessantly sharpening their notably quick wits 
against one another, spending week-ends and evenings 
together, reading and arguing. In addition to this, they 
“ plodded away,” to quote Shaw again, “at footling little 
meetings and dull discussions, doggedly placing these 
before all private engagements, however tempting.” No 
meeting was too small, or too large, for them: they were 
for ever busy, injecting Socialism. They talked in club- 
rooms and drawing-rooms, before Trade Union and Co- 
operative branches and workingmen’s associations of all 
kinds: they also organised meetings of their own. As 
many as seven hundred lectures were delivered by members 
in a single year; and the lion’s share of this work fell to 
the Quartette. Some of them, although not Sidney, 
talked out of doors as well as indoors: but, in the main 
they left the street corner to the S.D.F., and selected 
atmospheres permitting close argument and the following 
up of points, above all in question and answer. The 
work was hard. 

“A man’s Socialistic acquisitiveness must be keen enough to 
make him actually prefer spending two or three nights a week in 
speaking and debating, or in picking up social information even 
in the most dingy and scrappy way, to going to the theatre or 
dancing or drinking, or even sweethearting, if he is to become 
a really competent propagandist .” 1 

It was hard, but they did “actually prefer” it. What 
sweetened the toil, and made the whole thing immense 
fun, was the keenness of mutual life and the eager com- 
radeship that went with it. 

They talked; they also wrote, — and wrote assiduously. 
Part of the machinery of education, both of themselves 

1 G. B. S. ibid . 


and of others, was the issue of a stream of pamphlets. 
Characteristically they called them Tracts. If anyone 
liked to laugh, they had got in first with the joke. Among 
these early Tracts — of which the majority came, anony- 
mously, from the tireless pen of Sidney Webb — one in 
particular, achieved both a very large circulation and 
an immense effect: Facts for Socialists , issued in 1887. Here 
was propaganda of a then novel kind : the authentic propa- 
ganda of the deed. Little or no argument, but a marshalling 
of things done and doing that spoke for themselves. In 
the next year, Facts for Londoners drove the demonstration 
further home, and laid the main lines of an intensely 
practical programme. 

Webb loved London dearly: he also saw it, as it was: 
and the sight appalled him and haunted him. Born in 
mean streets, in closest contact with poverty at its grim- 
mest and yet, like every Londoner, also in visual contact 
with wealth, with Radicalism in his blood on both sides, 
and a brain of phenomenal grasp, the facts that he wrote 
into these two Tracts had, all the days of his upgrowing, 
pressed in upon him, on every hand. That “things as 
they are” are wrong, and stupidly wrong, was, for him, 
a matter of early, everyday observation. He already 
possessed a wealth of exact knowledge on history, politics, 
economics, far beyond that of any of his associates, or 
anyone whom he, at this stage, encountered in debate. 
To this store he was continually adding, his great aids 
being his remarkable memory and his power of incredibly 
rapid reading. He really is the omnivorous reader: but, 
unlike most such, he remembers what he reads. One 
glance at a printed page stamps its contents on the tables 
of his mind, and no accumulation produces either con- 
gestion or disorder there. He knew his facts, even in the 
’eighties. He knew, further, what he wanted to do with 
them. For him, already, the central idea of Socialism is 



“the conscious and deliberate substitution, in industrial as well 
as in political matters, of the collective self-government of the 
community as a whole, organised on a democratic basis, for the 
individual control over other men’s lives which the unrestrained 
private ownership of land and industrial capital inevitably 

He saw this substitution going on, but neither consciously 
nor deliberately. The immediate job, therefore, was to 
make people aware of what was, in fact happening, so 
that orderly planning might accelerate an inevitable 
process and lessen its friction. 

Socialists had then as always since, to fight on two 
fronts. They had, that is to say, to convince the un- 
converted that Socialism was reasonable and practicable: 
and at the same time to persuade them, and make clear 
to themselves, that what they stood for was neither Anar- 
chism nor Social Democratic Marxism, and why. Bernard 
Shaw has frankly admitted that he was, for a time, and 
perhaps temperamentally always, attracted by rebellion, 
for its own sake. G. R. S. Taylor, who was in the first 
decade of the twentieth century, on the Fabian Executive, 
sees him, when, as he puts it, “speaking on his own,” 
as a revolutionist: but he adds — 

“Then he gets lured back to the Fabian Society. . . . He seems 
in the grip of some powerful influence which coils round his 
mind : one thinks of the tale of Svengali, who was, if we remem- 
ber rightly, a dark man with a pointed beard, of weird hypnotic 
influence .” 1 

Mr. Taylor here suggests, of course, the “Machiavellian” 
view of Sidney Webb: his certainly was the “powerful 
influence” he has in mind. But there was no need for 
any “hypnotism” in the matter. The intellectual influence 
of Webb operated by purely intellectual means. For 

1 Leaders of Socialism , by G. R. S. Taylor, New Age Press, 1908. 



him, none of the varieties of what he has called “Impossi- 
bilism” had any attraction whatsoever. The lecture which 
he gave to the Society in 1894 on Socialism , True and False 1 
expresses, the more compellingly that its tone is, through- 
out, so gentle, the iron hand so completely sheathed in 
the velvet glove, what he thought, from the first: 

“In 1884, the Fabian Society, like the other Socialist organisa- 
tions, had its enthusiastic young members — aye, and old ones, 
too — who placed all their hopes on a sudden tumultuous up- 
rising of the united proletariat, before whose mighty onrush 
kings, landlords, and capitalists would go down like nine-pins, 
leaving society quietly to re-sort itself into Utopia. The date 
for the Social Revolution was sometimes actually fixed for 1889, 
the centenary of the opening of the French Revolution. I remem- 
ber myself that one of our friends, in his zeal that the rural dis- 
tricts might not be forgotten, printed and circulated a proposal 
that a few Socialist missionaries should buy a gipsy caravan and 
live in it ‘until the Revolution, 5 an event evidently to be expected 
before the ensuing winter ! 

It was against all thinking and teaching of this catastrophic 
kind that the Society gradually came to set its face — not, as I 
believe, that we were any less earnest in our warfare against 
existing evils, or less extreme in our remedies, but because we 
were sadly and sorrowfully convinced that no sudden or simul- 
taneous transformation of society from an Individualist to a 
Collectivist basis was possible, or even thinkable. 

On the other hand, we had but little sympathy with schemes 
for the regeneration of mankind by the establishment of local 
Utopias, whether in Cumberland or in Chile. To turn our back 
on the Unearned Increment and the Machine Industry seemed 
a poor way of conquering them. We had no faith in the recupera- 
tive qualities of spade husbandry or any devices for dodging the 
Law of Rent. In short, we repudiated the common assumption 
that Socialism was necessarily bound up with Insurrectionism 
on the one hand or Utopianism on the other, and we set to work 
to discover for ourselves and to teach to others how practically to 
transform England into a Social Democratic common- wealth. 5 5 

In this highly characteristic passage, the keywords are 
the practically in the closing line : and the refusal to attempt 

1 Reprinted in Problems of Industry. 



to “dodge the Law of Rent.” If one were to try to sum- 
marize the distinctive contribution made by Webb not 
only to the Fabian outlook, but to the development of 
British Socialism, one might cite this steady insistence on 
the practical, and this equally steady refusal to dodge. 
Practicality and truthfulness came, alike, not from a 
cold temper but from an enthusiasm seeing the actual 
problems as far too instant and too serious for mere light- 
headed playing with them. 

In the quite early days, a group within an association 
known as the Hampstead Historic Society settled down 
with the estimable intention of reading Karl Marx. The 
first volume of Das Kapital was available, in French. 
Graham Wallas, then teaching in Highgate, was, with 
other members of the Quartette, a party to this effort. 
He records that the students started off with the expectation 
of finding themselves in agreement with Marx. To their 
surprise, they found that they were not. Sidney Webb 
early brought up the Ricardian Law of Rent, which Marx 
skilfully evades by his use of the Hegelian dialectic, and 
insisted that it had got to be faced: met, and not “dodged.” 
His arguments: his report on the third volume, which 
he had perused in German, and pronounced to be “no 
good”: his marshalling of the Jevonian doctrine of Marginal 
Utility, combined to convince the group that, so far as 
the strictly economic side of Socialism went, they were 
not Marxians. 

In the subsequent gradual working out of what was to 
be the typical Fabian approach, he, again, took the lion’s 
share. The results were far-reaching. Had he, and his 
associates in the years between 1885 and 1892, or in the 
years from 1892 on, accepted the Marxian analysis and 
the Marxian dialectic, the course of the British Labour 
movement must have run along entirely different lines. 
He and his Fabian colleagues reached their conclusions 


after the most rigorous facing of all that they involved, 
and the most candid interrogation of the arguments one 
way and the other; arguments brought forward from 
many differing intellectual as well as temperamental 
angles. For, if it be true that, in these arguments, he 
dominated by his knowledge, his resolute and untireable 
persistency, and his immense power of ordering and mastering 
hard facts, he, in his turn, owed an immense amount, 
in his mental development, to constant contact with the 
singularly different minds of Shaw, Olivier and Wallas. 
Sydney Olivier, with his rich background of culture, 
tinged with a streak that can only be called romantic, 
perhaps derived from his Latin heredity, was, in the 
Quartette, the voice predominantly of the moral sense. 
His instinctive feeling of human brotherhood had a warm 
ardour; he was always there to remind the others of certain 
imponderables, and to bring colour into their social con- 
structions. Graham Wallas — who, alas, even while this 
was being written, died at his desk — brought not so much 
the underlying seriousness of the Nonconformist manse 
whence he came as his humour, his gaiety, his keen psycho- 
logical insight, his quick human sense and his rare general- 
ising faculty. Shaw, of course, counted most, and that 
not only through his vivid vitality and irrepressible sparkle. 
Through him, as in part through the other two, Webb, 
with his passion for getting things done, was made aware 
of another kind of intellectual effort: that “agony and 
bloody sweat” through which the artist arrives at truth. 
With humility, he paid homage to this in his friend. 

Having taught themselves what they thought, and what 
they did not think, and while this education was going 
on, the Fabians generally, and the Quartette in particular, 
set to work busily and very cheerily teaching others. “Every 
Sunday,” Shaw records, “I lectured on some subject which 
I wanted to teach myself.” They had a pretty clear notion 



of what they wanted to happen. The changes they desired 
were to come about by democratic action : through politics : 
through the creation of a new political party. They were 
out for what Webb was later to call “a new orientation 
in British Politics.” 

“From 1887 at any rate, we looked to the formation of a strong 
and independent Labour Party, which should take over the 
banner of social and economic reform from the Liberal Party, 
which, as it seemed to us, had faltered at the task, and could no 
longer satisfy the aspirations of those who stood for change . ” 

They looked to it; but facts compelled them to see it in 
the distance. Sidney Webb goes on: 

“We preached continuously the doctrine of Socialism as a matter 
of abstract economic and political theory. But we also set our- 
selves — and this was the specific feature of the Society’s work, 
in which it stood alone — to detach the conception of Socialism 
from such extraneous ideas as suddenness and simultaneity 
of change, violence and compulsion, and atheism or anti- 
clericalism. What helped to do this was our no less practical 
translation of Socialism into separate projects of social and 
industrial reform, adapted to the circumstances of Great Britain, 
which could be carried into effect by separate Acts of Parlia- 
ment. And, as a Society, we welcomed the adhesion of men and 
women of every religious denomination or of none, strongly 
insisting that Socialism was not Secularism; and the very object 
and purpose of all sensible collective action was the development 
of the individual soul or conscience or character. It is no small 
gain that the British Labour Party is the only Labour or 
Socialist Party in Europe that is not Secularist and anti-religious. 
Nor did we confine our propaganda to the slowly emerging 
Labour Party, or to those who were prepared to call themselves 
Socialists, or to the manual workers or to any particular class. 
We put our proposals, one by one, as persuasively as possible, 
before all who would listen to them — Conservatives whenever 
we could gain access to them, the churches and chapels of all 
denominations, the various Universities, and Liberals and 
Radicals, together with the other Socialist Societies at all times. 
This we called ‘permeation’: and it was an important discovery. 
Most reformers think that all they have got to do in a political 
Democracy is to obtain a majority. This is a profound mistake. 


3 ^ 

What has to be changed is not only the vote that is cast — not 
even the heart as well as the vote — but also the mental climate 
in which Parliament and the Government both live and work. 
The atmosphere of politics has to be transformed before the 
necessary revolution can be achieved. We realised, more vididly 
than most of our colleagues, that, at any rate in Britain, no 
political Party, however proletarian’ its composition or its 
sympathies, and however attractive its programme, could ever 
carry far-reaching reforms in Parliament by the support merely 
of the members whom it enrolled, or even of its sympathisers at 
elections. Nothing of importance, we thought, could be effected 
in social transformation unless public opinion generally, and all 
the other Parliamentary Parties, had been ‘prepared’ by pro- 
longed ‘education,’ to entertain and consider definite and 
detailed projects — even when they were continuing, with appar- 
ent determination, to offer to them the most uncompromising 
opposition. Hence the work of the Fabian Society has — avowedly 
and without the least concealment — persistently been along two 
separate lines. To the politicians who deigned from time to 
time to notice us, we presented simultaneously two fronts. On 
the one hand, as we frankly told them, we worked continuously 
for a new and powerful Labour Party, into which our members 
threw their energy. On the other hand, the Society strove as 
continuously, with the aid of all its members able to devote 
themselves to this work, to persuade all sections of public opinion, 
and all political Parties, of the advantages of the series of economic 
and social reforms into which wc were perpetually translating 
and retranslating the abstract Socialism that wc preached.” 1 

Shaw puts a similar view with characteristic pungency 
in the “ peroration ” of his Early History of the Fabian Society — 

“Whilst our backers at the polls are counted by tens we must 
continue to crawl and drudge and lecture as best wc can; when 
they are counted by hundreds wc can permeate and trim and 
compromise. When they rise to tens of thousands, we shall 
take the field as an independent party. Give us hundreds of 
thousands, as you can if you try hard enough, and we will ride 
the whirlwind and direct the storm.” 

In the eighties, the backers rose, at best, from tens to 
hundreds. If permeation was, at this stage, applied mainly 

1 St. Martin's Review , February 1929. 



to Radical and Liberal bodies, the reason was, in part, 
that, as Webb has more than once frankly stated, the 
Fabians did not, at this stage, in the least appreciate the 
importance of the Trade Union movement; partly that, 
again at this stage, Liberal minds seemed the most suggest- 
ible. Up and down the country, and notably in London, 
Radicals and even Liberals of the orthodox brand were 
becoming restive. They were bored with Ireland, many 
of them. In London, in particular, they were deeply 
perturbed about social conditions. Consummate ingenuity 
was brought to bear upon these perturbed spirits. The 
Fabians not only gave lectures; with superior cunning, 
they invited well-known politicians and economists to 
come and lecture to them. They invited them to 
Willis’s Rooms, “the most aristocratic and also the 
cheapest place of meeting in London at the time.” They 
listened, and then, at question time, fell upon them 
and “made them wish they had never been born.” 
An article in a contemporary Radical periodical (1888) 
suggestively entitled “Butchered to make a Fabian Holi- 
day” gives a vivid inside account of what it felt like, 
supplied by a well-known M.P., thus lured into the 

Fabian members were urged to get inside their respective 
political associations, whether Radical Club, Trade Union 
or Co-operative branch, or Conservative Association, and 
stir them up. Facts for Socialists and Facts for Londoners 
had begun the subversive work; it was followed up by 
getting a stream of resolutions sent up by Radical Clubs, 
Liberal Associations and Trade Union branches in favour 
of a legal Eight Hours Day: of municipal ownership and 
administration of water, gas, tramways and docks for the 
benefit of the ratepayers: of an unlimited extension of 
free education and health services: and, to meet the cost 
of all this, of stiff taxation of wealth by increased and 


steeply graduated income taxes and death duties. The 
Holborn and Strand Liberal Associations, in particular, 
were notably fertile in resolutions of a most advanced 
kind; Hampstead and Highgate displayed a point of view 
that hardly seemed natural. Not only were the resolutions 
sent up: Fabians, or Fabian sympathisers, got themselves 
appointed as delegates of their branches to regional and 
Party Conferences, where they pressed their points home 
with trained expertness. They wrote reports of the meetings 
at which they themselves spoke: or if reports could not 
be got into the Press, local or national, were assiduous 
in their use of the correspondence columns. For many 
years, The Star , founded in the mid-’eighties, was to 
all intents and purposes collared : its assistant editor, 
H. W. Massingham, being himself a Fabian for a time. 
When The Star was found out, by its proprietors, The Daily 
Chronicle , to which Massingham transferred, was exploited. 
Sidney Webb wrote regularly in The Star , as, later, in 
The Chronicle ; and displayed marvellous fertility of resource 
in getting his points in, whether in articles nominally of 
a strictly descriptive kind : in reviews : in reports of Con- 
ferences; or in innocent looking notes and paragraphs. 
In season and out of season, Radical discontent was 
fomented, and Liberal Associations were honeycombed with 
ideas far more revolutionary than those who were led to 
entertain them realised. It was largely by this tactic 
that the famous Newcastle Programme of 1891 was actually 
“put over” on the Liberal Federation; it was largely 
by this tactic that London, when the first elections for 
the County Council took place in 1889, returned a definitely 
Progressive majority to that body, and a Progressive 
majority “full of ideas that would never have come into 
their heads had not the Fabians put them there.” Shaw 
goes on — 



“The generalship of this movement was undertaken chiefly by 
Sidney Webb, who played such bewildering conjuring tricks 
with the Liberal thimbles and the Fabian peas that, to this 
day (1892), both the Liberals and the sectarian Socialists stand 
aghast at him.” 

It was all tremendous fun: the greatest fun, no doubt, 
at the stage when “permeation” was still really anonymous. 
But it was too well done and too successful to remain 
anonymous. Liberals began to wake up to what was 
going on. Their new weekly, The Speaker denounced 
Fabianism as 

“a mixture of dreary, gassy doctrinairism and crack-brained 
farcicality, set off with a portentous omniscience and flighty 
egotism not to be matched outside the walls of a lunatic asylum.” 

A spleen so blatant must have delighted the Fabian Junta, 
and not least the “portentous omniscient” and the “flighty 
egotist.” It was an eloquent tribute to their success. 
That success, however, made the maintenance of anony- 
mity impossible. 

It came to an end, when, in the winter of 1889, there 
appeared a modest and most attractive looking pale green 
volume, entitled Fabian Essays in Socialism . This contained 
eight pieces by seven hands : Bernard Shaw (editor) ; 
Sidney Webb; Sydney Olivier; Graham Wallas; Annie 
Besant; William Clarke; Hubert Bland. All but one of 
the essays had been delivered by the essayists, as lectures, 
in the previous months. Sidney Webb’s account of the 
historic basis of Socialism had, however, not been spoken 
by him, since, in the company of Edward Pease he had, 
in October 1888, sailed for a short trip to the United 
States. They got back, however, in time to assist in publica- 
tion. That publication was enterprising and original. 
He has described it himself, in the Preface he wrote to 
the 1920 Edition of the famous Essays. 


“The book was produced without the services of any publisher. 
For the original edition, we decided ourselves the format, chose 
the type, and gave the order to the printer. Walter Crane 
kindly designed for us a striking cover, and Miss May Morris 
a decorative back, both of which we imposed on the book-binder, 
taking care, w r ith both printer and binder, to choose firms paying 
the Trade Union rate of wages, and of good repute among the 
operatives. We issued a circular asking for orders for copies; 
and as the orders were received the copies were packed up at 
the Honorary Secretary’s house by himself and the volunteer 
Assistant Secretary, and posted to the subscribers. To our 
surprise, the first edition was immediately sold out, yielding a 
modest profit to the Fabian Society, to which the seven authors 
had formally conveyed their copyright. A second impression w^as 
also rapidly sold, and then the book w r as entrusted to a publishing 
firm for the issue of successive cheap reprints. It has been 
repeatedly reprinted in the United States, and has been trans- 
lated into most of the languages of Europe.” 

There are many interesting things in this 1920 preface, 
not the least interesting being its author’s own statement 
that he finds himself “mainly concerned to note where 
we went wrong, and what we omitted.” Most of those 
omissions he was himself to correct, long before the preface 
to the 1920 edition w r as written. Whatever they were, 
the book made a great stir, at the time: represented the 
sounding of a quite new voice. It has been described 
by G. D. H. Cole, no wilfully amiable critic of anything 
written over the name of Webb, as “The most important 
single publication in the history of British Socialism.” 

For one, anyhow, of its authors, this coming out into 
the open represented a decision clearly taken, and the 
end of a phase, clearly seen. Sidney Webb had reached 
the point when he felt that he ought to take a share in 
administration : learn the machine from inside : if possible, 
permeate and control it. Impassioned Londoner as he 
was, he hailed the establishment of the London County 
Council with enthusiasm, and had helped, potently, to 
bring its Progressive majority into being. The next stage, 



plainly, was to get on to it, himself. In 1891, accordingly, 
he resigned the post in the Colonial Office which he had 
occupied for ten years. His economic basis, on his very 
modest standard, was secured: he had saved enough to 
provide, with writing, the necessary resources. He settled 
down to winning Deptford for the Progressives at the 
1892 L.C.C. Election, and for Deptford, when the election 
came, he was elected, by a very large majority. 

This change in the form and circumstances of his life 
marks the end of an epoch in it. It coincided with an 
event even more important, which carried with it a much 
more far-reaching change. From his own personal point 
of view, the most significant reaction from the publication 
of Fabian Essays was that produced in the mind of a brilliant 
young woman, to whom an early copy had been sent by 
a friend. In a drawing-room in Monmouthshire, she 
read it from cover to cover; in sending it on, to be read 
by another friend, she remarked: 

“By far the most significant and interesting essay is that by 
Sidney Webb: he has the historic sense. ” 

The first, if still distant, contact between Beatrice Potter 
and Sidney Webb had, actually, occurred some months 
before this. In The Star he wrote a review of the first 
volume of Charles Booth’s Life and Labour in London , in 
the course of which he stated that “ The only contributor 
with any literary talent is Miss Beatrice Potter.’’ 



A long jump, certainly, from Cranbourn Street to 
Standish House in the Cotswolds, where Beatrice Potter 
was born on January 2nd, 1858. It was a large, white, 
rambling mansion ("‘more like an institution than a 
home”) looking, from the windows at the front which 
faced south-w'est, over extensive flow r er gardens and the 
artificial water of the period, to the lovely valley of the 
Severn. A thoroughly Victorian house, the rooms at the 
front were comfortably, even excessively, furnished, with 
heavy, shiny mahogany, draperies, carpets, curtains, 
ornaments and nick-nacks; but the children — nine girls, 
of whom Beatrice was the youngest but one — lived mainly 
in the sunless and stone-passaged regions at the back. 
Here were the school-room, the nurseries, the girls’ bed- 
rooms and those of their governesses, the single bath-room, 
as well as the smoke-room and the billiard-room of the 
master of the house. 

But while Standish was the headquarters of the Potter 
family, they were, partly as a result of Mr. Potter’s business 
avocations, partly because the social status of a governing 
family of the period demanded the possession of several 
abodes, constantly on the move. “The restless spirit of 
big enterprise dominated our home life.” Spring thus 
generally found them occupying a furnished house in 
London, where the girls “came out”; in the summer, 
Rusland Hall in Westmorland, where Mr. Potter had 
another set of timber yards over and above those in 




Gloucestershire, was frequently used; to The Argoed in 
Monmouthshire, another large house, overhanging a 
romantically lovely part of the Wye valley, the younger 
members of the family were apt to be despatched at seasons 
when the elder were entertaining house parties at Standish. 
At any given moment, one or two of the girls might be 
abroad, either finishing their education (which, of course, 
was a matter of governesses and tutors, not of school) 
on the Continent, or accompanying their father on one 
of his numerous business trips to the United States, Canada 
or elsewhere. The whole scale of existence was rich, 
ample, various and important. Not only did the Potters 
occupy a series of extensive and expensive houses; they 
moved, as of easy natural right, in the best circles: those 
socially distinguished and those moreover politically and 
intellectually most commanding. Their friends were 
people at the tops of their respective trees; within that 
limitation to those somehow or other prominent, their 
acquaintance showed a vast diversity, and was governed 
by an easy unconventional tolerance, especially on the 
part of the father; it covered all the worlds then recognised, 
in specimens of kaleidoscopic variety. The world of 
labour, of course, was hardly recognised as one: labour, 
Mr. Potter, kindly but quite instinctively, regarded as a 

While the whole atmosphere was one of success, of easy 
mastery and accepted command, life was not in the ordinary 
materialist sense luxurious. Beatrice Potter, in the clear- 
cut picture she was later to draw of it, says: 

“There was no consciousness of superior riches: on the con- 
trary, owing to my mother’s utilitarian expenditure (a discrim- 
inating penuriousness which I think was traditional in familes 
rising to industrial power during the Napoleonic wars) the Potter 
girls were brought up to Teel poor’.” 1 

1 My Apprenticeship . 


Poor, but powerful. Powerful, and conscious of power. 

“As life unfolded itself, I became aware that I belonged to a 
class of persons who habitually gave orders, but who seldom, if 
ever, executed the orders of other people. My mother sat in her 
boudoir and gave orders — orders that brooked neither delay 
nor evasion. My father, by temperament the least autocratic and 
most accommodating of men, spent his whole life in giving orders. 

. . . When, one after another, my sisters’ husbands joined the 
family group, they also were giving orders.” 

This sense of natural and instinctive power was the most 
important distinguishing colour in the picture of the 
world which unfolded itself to the eyes of the girl as she 
grew up. From intimate inside knowledge comes the 
conviction, to sound so often in her mature writing, that 
insolence is the hateful fault from which the “upper classes” 
suffer. That intimate knowledge she has, with a truly 
magnificent candour, given to the world in the first 
volume of autobiography which she calls My Apprenticeship , 
published in 1926: a book as fascinating in its delineation 
of a social period as in its portrayal of a mind. From it, 
we may know her inner history as never that of her husband; 
know it so well that any description of her life before she 
met him must consist mainly of quotations from one of 
the great books of our time. 

Although she was brought up mainly in the south-west, 
her parents, on both sides, were children of the north of 
England: that new north which came into power with 
the Industrial Revolution and the 1832 Reform Act. Her 
paternal grandfather, Richard Potter senior, was one of 
the Potters of Tadcaster: Lawrence Hcyworth, her maternal 
grandfather, after whom his only daughter w as named Law- 
rencina, came from Rossendale in Lancashire. Both were 
Radicals, Nonconformists, and supporters of John Bright; 
both became members of the post- 1832 House of Commons, 
Richard Potter being returned by Wigan in 1832, Lawrence 



Heyworth by Derby in 1847. Richard Potter further 
was one of the founders of the Manchester Guardian . When 
Georgina, one of Beatrice’s elder sisters, wrote the story 
of the Tadcaster Potters, calling it From Ploughshare to 
Parliament , she describes Mary Seddon, whom the first 
Richard married, merely as a “handsome and gipsy-like 
girl,” and draws a thick veil over the circumstances of the 
subsequent separation. Beatrice, on the other hand, 
with that superior frankness which is one of the vivifying 
and distinguishing notes of her writing, speaks of her 
paternal grandmother as that “Tall dark woman of Jewish 
type,” who, long before Zionism, dreamed of leading 
the Jews back to Jerusalem; and tells us that she spent 
part of her latter days in an asylum. From that grand- 
mother, whose story is like a flash from other more perilous 
regions across the even safe normality of the Potters and 
the Heyworths, she may well have inherited not only 
her vivid darkness of colouring and her finely aquiline 
nose — the true dominant nose, Roman rather than Hebraic 
— but a fire within w'hich, thanks to the difference in their 
generations, found a happier scope than Mary Seddon’s. 

Richard Potter the second planned for himself and 
his bride, the leisurely life of a country gentleman. The 
financial crash of 1847-8, however, swept away his hand- 
some inherited fortune; he had to take up the active business 
life which, w r ith marked success and enjoyment, he carried 
on, on an expanding scale, until within a few years of 
his death on January 1st, 1892. Family connexions helped 
him to a partnership in a timber merchant’s business in 
Gloucester, and afterwards made him a director of the 
Great Western Railway; thanks to his own considerable 
abilities, his interests developed on an ample, even an 
international, scale. As President of the Grand Trunk 
Railway of Canada, director of the Hudson Bay Company, 
and of Dutch-Rhenish as well as other home railways 


besides the Great Western, he was a representative general 
of industry and high finance, and moved easily through 
the world of large concerns, international operations, and 
world politics. As a result, his children grew up in contact — 
a contact which in Beatrice’s case was close and intelli- 
gent, especially in the later years of his life, when she 
acted as confidential secretary and aide-de-camp, as well 
as housekeeper — with a “maze of capitalist undertakings” 
seen through the eyes of one of their controllers: were 
intimately and at first hand acquainted with the ruling 
forces of the life of their day. 

The girls adored their father, as he them; but one, 
at any rate, pondered early and earnestly over “the ethics 
of capitalist enterprise” as presented to her by the actions 
and axioms of a man of high personal character and rare 
charm, possessed of what Herbert Spencer called a “noble 
amiability,” who “thought, felt and acted in terms of 
personal relationships, and not in terms of general 
principles,” and who “had no clear vision of the public 
good.” “‘A friend 5 he would assert, ‘is a person who 
would back you up when you were in the wrong, who 
would give your son a place which he could not have 
won on his merits . 5 Any other conduct he scoffed at, 
as moral pedantry. Hence, he tended to prefer the welfare 
of his family and personal friends to the interests of the 
companies over which he presided, the profits of these 
companies to the prosperity of his country, the dominance 
of his own race to the peace of the world.” He was eminently 
a good man, by his own standards; but “the circumstances 
of mid-Victorian capitalist enterprise were hostile to any 
fixed standard of morality.” 

Although born a Radical, he had, by the time his 
daughter knew him, long ceased to be one. For him, 
Cobden and Bright were fanatics, deceiving themselves 
with notions. Although brought up a Unitarian, he 



became, in middle life, an Anglican, as well as a Con- 
servative. Women he genuinely believed to be superior 
to men — a view his wife — and daughter — was far from 
sharing; but, while he would have enfranchised them, 
he was no democrat. He enjoyed intellectual society, and 
Huxley, Tyndall, James Martineau, Cardinal Manning 
and Bishop Ellicott were all friends, but for philosophy 
and philosophising he had a large measure of the English- 
man’s native contempt. Herbert Spencer was for years 
an intimate of the household and the first person who 
definitely stimulated and took a real interest in Beatrice’s 
intellectual struggles : but for her father, “he lacked instinct,” 
and the Synthetic philosophy “bored him past endurance.” 

If she inherits from the father she adored, the forceful 
drive of personality, the habit of command, the “genius 
for planning rather than executing,” from her mother 
comes that self-centred, at times mystical, sense of spiritual 
conflict and spiritual need that was revealed, in a manner 
surprising enough to many at the time, when she lectured 
under the Fabian auspices in the Essex Hall in 1907, on 
“The Faith I Hold.” How deep in its roots, and how 
early in its manifestations, was this religious aspiration, 
the extracts from her girlish diary printed in My Apprentice- 
ship fully reveal. To her mother the problem — the unsolved 
problem — of faith was central. In many ways, she must 
have been a far from happy woman : unhappy above 
all in her sense of thwarted purpose: a tragedy far com- 
moner with women in those days than was understood, 
or even guessed at, at the time. Reared by and with 
men, moreover, Mrs. Potter disliked women. Her only 
son died in infancy : she was surrounded by nine daughters — 
“not the sort of women she liked or approved.” Their 
father laughed at and enjoyed their unconventionality, 
not so their mother. She died in 1882: it was only very 
near the end of her life that there sprang up between 


her and Beatrice a sympathy which seems to have been 
born of a sense on her part that possibly the daughter 
of whom, as but a child, she had said, “ Beatrice is the 
only one of my children who is below the average in 
intelligence,” might yet be destined to realise her own 
smothered, hardly admitted, ambition for service and 
public work. 

Beatrice’s own picture of her youth suggests a not happy 
and rather hostile isolation. Her affection for her mother 
was a late growth: her father, a glowing radiant figure, 
gave her all sorts of contacts and freedoms, but spiritually 
left her alone. It was the Synthetic Philosopher who 
best understood her. “As a little child” she says, “he 
was perhaps the only person who persistently cared for 
me: or rather who singled me out as one who was worthy 
of being trained and looked after.” His certainly was a 
commanding influence in her development: but for him, 
she might, in a hundred ways, have grown up into a very 
different woman. Her autobiography is largely a record 
of that influence: immensely stimulating on the mental 
side, but possibly actually thwarting on the moral and 
emotional. Nothing is more arresting, in those fascinating 
pages, than the remark she drops, apropos of his death, 
that “if I had to live my life over again, according to 
my present attitude, I should, I think, remain a con- 
forming member of the National Church.” With a strong 
mystical sense, and a deep natural Puritanism, appearing 
and re-appearing in manifold guises throughout her career, 
she was compelled, by his influence, into a long sojourn 
in the arid wastes of a kind of Rationalism that could 
never satisfy her temperament; nor was she ever wholly 
to escape from the shape of his style. His influence 
was the more potent that there was nothing in her environ- 
ment to offset its intensely intellectual bias. There is 
an element of passion in her temper that cries out for 



some kind of artistic outlet. A home of rich regulated 
Victorian ugliness offered little scope to this through 
eye or ear; Spencer, aware of this vivid spark, dedicated 
it on the altar of his own philosophy, and so, indirectly, 
prepared it for social economics. But the passage through 
Spencerism cost her a great deal: and shaped her mind 
perhaps a little artificially. His “singling her out” any- 
how, was a determinant fact in her growth. Not unnatur- 
ally, as a late comer in a very large family, it was for this 
that her ardent young mind was, pining. 

If, in her picture of her girlhood her elder sisters, with 
the exception of Margaret, seem rather dim, this is explained 
no doubt by the difference in their ages; if she herself 
seems rather constantly overshadowed by a sense of sin, 
of loneliness, of not being truly at home in the world of 
“rootless social relations” whirling round her, one has 
to remember that, on all this period, one is, in the main, 
reading a diary. Any diary exaggerates both self-centred- 
ness and the gloom associated with it: the phenomenon 
she most aptly describes as “being under one’s own shadow.” 
Of hers, the outstanding trait is a tendency to argue with 
herself. Later, long economic and sociological disquisi- 
tions find place in it; at all times, one is in contact with 
a woman whose mind is the most important part of her. 
So far as the years of adolescence go, much of the melan- 
choly that broods over her entries must be taken as proper 
to the age of the writer, her then unstable health, and 
the form of self-revelation. Here is an eager, ardent, 
highly self-conscious young creature, with a painfully 
active mind, amply stimulated and fed, seen from within. 
The other half of the picture, that seen from without, 
largely invisible to its subject, requires to be added. Tall, 
slight, with dark, flashing eyes accentuated by eye-brows 
of clear line but short curve, a powerful chin, an eager 
aggressive aquiline nose, and a mass of dark not too smooth 


hair, Beatrice Potter was always a striking and often a 
more than commonly handsome apparition — a fact that 
must have entered into and affected her approach to 
life. The tone of personal ascendency, even of domination, 
was inevitably hers; through the world, she moved with 
something more than ease. She might disapprove: she 
can never have been afraid of it. 

At sixteen, she accompanied her father to the United 
States, where she had a rather serious illness. Then, at 
eighteen, she was plunged into London society, since — 

“In the ’seventies and ’eighties, the London season, together 
with its derivative country-house visiting, was regarded by 
wealthy parents as the equivalent, for their daughters, of the 
university education and professional training afforded for their 
sons, the adequate reason being that marriage to a man of their 
own or higher social grade was the only recognised vocation for 
women not compelled to earn their own livelihood.” 

She went through it all, 

“presentation at Court, riding in the Row, calls, lunches and 
dinners, dances and crushes, Hurlingham and Ascot, not to 
mention amateur theatricals and other sham philanthropic 

realised the purpose of it all, carried on sometimes ‘ with 
genteel surreptitiousness,” sometimes with “cynical effron- 
tery”; and has given an unforgettable picture of a world 
whose “occupational disease” is personal vanity, and whose 
most destructive poison is a cynicism about human rela- 
tions. For six years, between eighteen and twenty-four, 
she lived the life thought proper to the young lady of 
her age and social class; and lived it on the best terms 
it had to offer. Six months in London for “the season” 
alternated wdth periods in the country and abroad — six 
months in one year for example, in the Rhineland, another 
six in Italy. She saw what she calls “the idol of personal 



power” at close range, and as one apparently destined 
to be one of its more distinguished hierophants. She 
knew, from personal experience, the heartlessness of its 
scale of values: 

“The rumour of an approaching marriage to a great political 
personage would be followed by a stream of invitations; if the 
rumour proved to be unfounded, the shower stopped with 
almost ridiculous promptitude.” 

She knew too, the strain on health, temper and character: 

“By the end of the season, indigestion and insomnia had under- 
mined physical health; a distressing mental nausea, taking the 
form of cynicism about one’s own and other people’s characters, 
had destroyed all faith in, and capacity for, steady work.” 

So it might be, with most. But there was remarkable 
stuff in this girl: something fibrous, that resisted and 
grew through the most unfavourable circumstances; behind 
it a will of enormous potency. With herself, she is as 
harshly frank as she was, ever, later, to be accused of 
being with others. Constantly, here, she rates herself 
again and again for vanity and all its tribe of sins. Is 
vanity really the right word for this tenacious mental 
and spiritual vigour? Is it not rather ambition, the urge 
to domination and self-expression? 

The months in the country anyhow were months of 
hard and omnivorous reading, and of intense, if largely 
painful, thinking. Book-buying was the Potters’ one 
extravagance; even when the girls were very young, their 
father’s comment, if a book they wanted to read happened 
to be banned by the libraries, invariably was — “ Buy it, 
my dear, buy it!” The books that she read, at this time, 
were concerned less with human fragility than with science, 
philosophy and sociology, Spencerian and other. It 
was about this time that she settled down seriously to 


study the First Principles and other works of her old and 
constant friend. In earlier days she had merely played 
games with his intellect : collecting facts in support of 
his theories, and learning from him “To discern not the 
truth but the relevance of facts.” Now, as she read him 
systematically, his generalisations began to serve as an 
illuminating guide — a guide, in many directions, to views 
far enough away from his. This was eminently the case 
w r ith her views on religion. Her American trip had increased 
the “intellectual difficulties of faith” by which the girl 
of eighteen was already tormented ; before she was twenty, 
her “feeble hold on orthodox Christianity ” had disappeared. 
But she found it impossible, hard as she tried, to put the 
religion of science in its place ; nor were her efforts, under 
the inspiration of Frederic Harrison and his wife, to find 
a home in the Religion of Humanity, any more satisfying. 

The death of her mother, in 1882, changed the colour 
of her life and of her outlook. By then, through struggles 
that seemed, at the time, largely self-defeating, she had 
found something to her of immense and lasting importance. 
Years were to pass, middle life was to be reached, before a 
“true metaphysical resting place” had been achieved; 
nevertheless, she had, by tw r enty-four, discovered that, 
for her, some element of what can only be called mystical 
communion with the unseen and unknowable was a necessity 
for tolerable existence. 

“During the ten years intervening between my mother’s death 
and my father’s death and my own marriage, — crucial years 
during which I acquired the craft of a social investigator, ex- 
perienced intense emotional strain, and persisted in continuous 
intellectual toil under adverse circumstances — it was the habit 
of prayer w hich enabled me to survive, and to emerge relatively 
sound in body and sane in mind.” 

In her Diary, on the day after her mother’s funeral, she 
records : 



“Now that I have experienced what the death of a dear one is, 
and have watched it and waited for it, a deep yearning arises 
for some religion by which to console grief and stimulate action. 
I have, if anything, less faith in the possibility of another life. 
As I looked at our mother dying, I felt it was a final dissolution 
of soul and body — and an end of that personality which we call 
the spirit. This was an instinctive conviction: on this great ques- 
tion, we cannot reason. But, though my disbelief in what we call 
immortality was strengthened, a new and wondrous faith has 
arisen within me — a faith in goodness — in God. I must pray, I 
do pray and feel better for it; and more able to put aside all 
compromise with worldliness and to devote myself with single- 
heartedness to my duty.” 

The fundamental issue, faced sooner or later by every truly 
animate mind, already stood before her: is the world a blind 
and infernal chaos, or is there in it some order, some deep 
underlying connexion, some pattern which justifies our 
“sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”? 
She felt an overpowering need to see what she has herself 
called “a purpose in the process.” Much as its form 
was to change and develop, an accepted sense of purpose 
is the guiding thread, from this time on, in her life, and 
the key to its development. 

Practically, as well as spiritually, her mother’s death 
was a turning-point. She became, and until his death, 
ten years later, remained, not only the head of her father’s 
household, and effective guardian of her one younger sister, 
but his close associate in business. New responsibilities 
brought new strength. “From being an anaemic girl, 
I became an exceptionally energetic woman”; one who 
habitually put in many hours of hard and exacting reading — 
mathematics, logic, philosophy, economics — before the 
early breakfast that started the official day, at 8 a.m. It 
was as a London society hostess, and not any longer as a 
mere marriageable girl, that she had that intimate friend- 
ship with Joseph Chamberlain — by far the most brilliant 
and challenging figure in the world of politics at the time — 


that makes so arrestingly coloured a thread in the tapestry 
of this section of her life. In him, she felt a rare, an ex- 
citing quality — passion : intellectual passion ; knew a human 
being in whom there had taken place a complete release 
of the drive towards self-expression that agonised her; 
knew further, one with whom “the political creed is the 
whole man.” Fascinated and thrilled, she yet saw with 
singular clearness : 

“By temperament, he is an enthusiast and a despot. A 
deep sympathy with the misery and incompleteness of most 
men’s lives, and an earnest desire to right this, transforms 
political action into a religious crusade; but running alongside 
this genuine enthusiasm is a passionate desire to crush opposition 
to his will, a longing to feel his foot on the necks of others, though 
he would persuade himself that he represents right and his 
adversaries wrong.” 

So she wrote in January 1884: it is impossible not to con- 
nect this with the passages, again from her Diary, in which 
she describes what she calls the “dead point” in her life 
in that and the following year. Of these years she herself 
says : 

“I gather that I saw myself as suffering from divided per- 
sonality: the normal woman seeking personal happiness in love 
given and taken within the framework of a successful marriage; 
whilst the other self claimed, in season and out of season, the 
right to the free activity of a ‘clear and analytic mind.’ But did 
the extent of my brain power — I was always asking myself — 
warrant sacrificing happiness, and even risking a peaceful accept- 
ance of life, through the insurgent spirit of a defiant intellect? 
For in those days of the customary subordination of the woman 
to the man — a condition accentuated in my case by special 
circumstances — it would not have been practicable to unite the 
life of love and the life of reason.” 

Doubts as to the rightness of her decision might still visit 
her; but it was made; by 1894 she had chosen the life of the 
“professional brain worker.” Moreover, the particular 



line of brain work which was to be hers was becoming 
clear. According to her own account, it was environ- 
ment, far more than any native faculty, that impelled her to 
take up and equip herself for the craft of a social inves- 

“I had neither aptitude nor liking for much of the technique of 
sociology; some would say for the vital parts of it. I had, for 
instance, no gifts for that rapid reading and judgment of original 
documents, which is indispensable to the historian; though by 
sheer persistency and long practice I acquired this faculty. And 
whilst I could plan out an admirable system of note-taking, the 
actual execution of the plan was, owing to an inveterate ten- 
dency to paraphrase extracts I intended to copy, not to mention 
an irredeemably illegible hand-writing, a wearisome irritation 
to me. As for the use of figures, whether mathematical or statis- 
tical, I might as w r ell have attempted to turn water into wine!” 

These are defects; but she had also qualities she does not 
mention — intellectual curiosity, imagination of a special 
kind, persistency, and a very strong impulse towards self- 
expression, which, in the lack of any tinge of purely artistic 
feeling, could find no outlet in art or craft. Poetry was, 
in the strict sense, a sealed book: the form had to be “trans- 
lated” before she could get at its meaning; the absence of 
any real concern with either painting or music is a notable 
gap in her picture of the dense world she lived in. The 
air of that world was, on the other hand, thick with 
questioning about social relations, economic assumptions, 
and political actions. Social reform was not only in the 
air: it was the substance of her circumstances and her 
surroundings at this stage. 

As a London hostess, she constantly met and argued with 
prominent politicians, writers, economists and scientists on 
their own ground. “A rather hard and learned woman, 
with a clear and analytic mind” — that was the impression 
she made, at this stage, on a keen observer. The angle of 
her interest was rather special : she brought a point of view 


of her own; had she been born thirty years later, she 
might, as she herself says, have become a social psychologist, 
instead of a social investigator. But the drive was ab- 
solutely authentic. Proof of this is in the fact that not only 
did she practise descriptive writing, for the fun of it; she 
also set out, in the year after her mother’s death, to explore, 
for herself, the unknown world of labour. A romantic 
point of departure was afforded in the possibility of visiting, 
incognita, so far as they were concerned, her mother’s 
relations in Bacup, weavers living as weavers generally 
do. There she met for the first time many phenomena 
hitherto unknown, including the Co-operative store; and 
learned things never forgotten about the actual existence 
of the poor. She also liked her relations, very much: 
as they her. This adventurous expedition, sandwiched 
into a life otherwise occupied with large-scale social obliga- 
tions and engagements, help to her father in his business 
affairs, arguments with Comtists and others, and a reading 
that ranged over everything that could fit under the shade 
of economics, politics, philosophy or science, gave a decisive 
turn to her self-development. 

It happened that, about this same time, the world of labour 
was beginning, painfully, to impinge upon the mind of 
Mr. Potter, and talk about it to penetrate the home circle, 
as it was penetrating that of so many home circles in 
contemporary Britain. His interests, again about this 
time, were deflected from the American to the British 
market, with the result that Labour came to mean to 
him — 

“no abstraction at all, but a multitude of restless, self-assertive 
and loss-creating fellow-creatures, who could no longer be 
ignored, and therefore had to be studied.” 

From this point of view then, Mr. Potter began to take 
a certain unquiet interest in the rent-collecting which his 
daughter Kate had for some years been pursuing in the 



East End, under Miss Octavia Hill: and in the Charity 
Organisation Society visiting which Beatrice began to 
do in Soho. Miss Hill was a friend of his: more intimate 
and constant visitors to the household, and friends of 
Beatrice as well as of her father, were Samuel and Henrietta 
Barnett, and her cousins Charles and Mary Booth. About 
this same time, too, “three politically-minded brothers- 
in-law joined the family group. ” Margaret, her favourite 
sister, married Henry Hobhouse in 1880: in the next 
year, Theresa married C. A. Cripps (afterwards Lord 
Parmoor), then a barrister, with strong political leanings, 
deep and serious interest in social questions, and a fine 
mind, against which Beatrice loved to sharpen her own: 
while Kate in 1 883 married Leonard Courtney, who 

“brought to bear upon our discussions a massive intelligence 
and an amazing memory, combined with the intellectual in- 
tegrity and personal disinterestedness of a super-man.” 

All of them were interested in politics: all however would 
have agreed with the point of view expressed, in 1880 
by Mr. Gladstone, when he wrote to Lord Rosebery, 

“What is outside Parliament seems to me to be fast mounting — 
nay, to have already mounted — to an importance much exceed- 
ing what is inside. ” 

Among the forces thus working outside was philanthropy: 
a philanthropy animated by a “class-consciousness of sin.” 

“The social reformers in parliament, whether Conservatives or 
Liberals, belonged, almost invariably, to the groups of public- 
spirited men and women within the metropolis or in the pro- 
vincial towns who were initiating and directing the perpetual 
flow of charitable gifts from the nation of the rich to the nation 
of the poor.” 

Of this philanthropy, the Charity Organisation Society 
was the outstanding organised form; with it both Miss 


Octavia Hill and Canon Barnett were closely associated 
at one time, although the Barnetts broke away, definitely, 
in 1886, when it became clear to them that neither honesty 
nor thrift could save the poor from poverty: only organised 
action by the whole community of which they were a part. 

All this made a stimulating atmosphere. Beatrice was 
not satisfied however, either by discussion or by reading; 
determined to see for herself, she first did some visiting 
in Soho, and then took up the rent collecting her sister 
Kate laid down on her marriage. In 1885 she became, 
with Miss Ella Pycroft, jointly responsible for a block of 
working-class tenements known as Katharine Buildings, 
managed by Miss Octavia Hill for a group of philanthropists 
who had undertaken the difficult task of providing new 
housing for the dockers and others displaced by the slum 
clearance activities, near St. Katharine’s Dock, of the 
Metropolitan Board of Works. It was a dreary structure, 
in which 

‘‘all amenity, some would say all decency, had been sacrificed, 
to the two requirements of relatively low rents and physically 
sanitary buildings.” 

She worked extremely hard and conscientiously and with 
the keenest observations; at the end of a year’s steady 
toil her conclusion was that, “These buildings are an 
utter failure.” 

This was in November: on November 26th, the day 
on which London polled in the General Election of 1885, 
Mr. Potter, who had gone out to vote, was struck down 
by paralysis. He had to withdraw not only from business 
but from all social intercourse. Rent collecting, every- 
thing but care for her father, had to be abandoned. He 
had to be nursed and tended ; his affairs had to be attended 
to. So soon as he was able to be moved, she took him 
down to Bournemouth. 



It looked as though the career she had seen as just 
beginning had suddenly and definitely come to an end. 
Worse, this enforced inactivity came at a time when her 
own personal unhappiness, her doubt, even, as to whether 
she had not made a mistake in the essential direction of 
her own life, was at its darkest. The work of which she 
was now deprived seemed the one narcotic which could 
enable her to bear the “vain repetition of the waves of 
feeling.’ ’ It must have been a very bad moment; but 
if she ever saw it as more, she grotesquely underestimated 
the fibre of her character and the energy of her intellectual 
drive. Indeed, in the midst of despair, she was enough 
concerned to prevent the attraction of more labour into 
the already over-stocked market of the Docks to write 
to the Pall Mall Gazette a protest against a plan, then 
being mooted, for the establishment of relief works in 
that area. By return of post, she got a letter from the 
editor: “May we place your signature at the head of the 
article?” This cheered her, somewhat, as well it might; 
it was the first, and a valid, recognition of her quality 
as a writer on social questions. Nor is there any hint of 
real despair, or of real abandonment of hopes of the career, 
in her next step. 

“Having sampled the method of observation and experiment, 
what I most needed was historical background, and some 
acquaintance with past and present economic theory.” 

To see this, was to act upon it. 

“Owing to my habit of early rising, I was able to get through a 
good three hours of sustained study and concentrated thought 
before breakfast.” 

The reading was the stiffest possible — Ricardo, Marx, 
Jevons; but, more and more, she was, and knew she was, 
passing out of the stage of mere reading of books by others. 
“Concentrated thought” was beginning to take more and 


more of her time : she was beginning to have ideas of her 
own. Writing naturally followed. She planned an article 
on Social Diagnosis. The plan, which survives, is altogether 
admirable, and was to be put, amply, into practice; but 
the writer’s mind moved on to project two other essays, 
one on the History of English Economics, the other on 
the Economic Theory of Karl Marx. The first of these 
was finished in the autumn of 1885: the second in the 
spring. In her very sharp and acute criticism of the 
Marxian theory of value, she is, along similar lines, and 
for similar reasons, reaching the same conclusions that 
were, about this same time, being formulated by the 
Fabian Quartette, under the guidance of Sidney Webb. 
She explains, in an interesting entry in her Diary, that 
the dogmatic and authoritative tone she naturally assumes 
in writing arises not out of vanity, but out of the clarity 
and apparent inevitability of her own conviction as to 
the point of view she expresses. 

“I can’t help my ideas taking a positive form; and if I try to 
express them in a hesitating way, I am only affected. It is 
either T don’t know, for I am not capable of judging/ or ‘I 
believe with my whole heart and soul that black is black and 
nothing wall persuade me to say that it is white.’ It is this hope- 
less independence of thought that makes my mind so distasteful 
to many people; and rightly so, for a woman should be more or 
less dependent and receptive. However, I must go through the 
world with my mind as it is, and be true to myself.” 

Meantime, while she was working thus intensively, 
enduring, in fullest measure “ the intolerable toil of thought” 
and finding release in thus grappling with objective prob- 
lems, the way was opening which was to lead her into 
the heart of the citadel. Her cousin Charles Booth had, 
already, taken her into his closest counsels in planning 
out that great Enquiry into conditions in London which 
was, when completed, to act as a most potent impetus 



towards social change, and even towards Socialist thinking. 
Charles Booth was, by chosen profession, a great captain 
of industry, a shipowner and much besides; by conviction 
he was a Comtist. His cousin, who admired and enjoyed 
him greatly, saw him as 

“ within my circle of friends, perhaps the most perfect embodi- 
ment of . . . the union of faith in the scientific method with 
the transference of emotion of self-sacrificing service from God 
to man”; 

the embodiment in other words, of what she calls the 
“Victorian time-spirit.” In him, this type was dashed 
with a genuine originality. He had a passion for asking 
questions, of himself and others. Thus, when the “con- 
dition of the people” was a phrase on every lip, he retorted 
“Who are they? Who are the people of England? How 
do they live? What are they like? What do they care 
for?” Answers to his questions, fundamental as they 
were, were not forthcoming. He determined to supply 
them. It was an enterprise that roused all Beatrice’s 
enthusiasm; she longed to work with him: but in view 
of her tie to her father, it seemed impossible. In the 
autumn of 1886, however, it became plain that Mr. Potter’s 
illness had passed out of the acute into a stationary stage; 
her married sisters, therefore, insisted that they should, 
in turns, take her place at his side, so releasing her for 
at least four clear months in the year. At once, she sped 
up to London to see Charles Booth, who, so far, had 
been working single-handed; and he, in view of her 
knowledge of the Docks area, put her in charge of that 
section of his survey. After spending the winter with her 
father at Bournemouth, in March 1887 she went up to Lon- 
don, betook herself to the headquarters of the Quakers at 
Devonshire House, Bishopsgate, and settled down to work. 

The work was hard, and in its nature depressing: but 


she enjoyed it. Above all, she enjoyed the growing sense 
of power and capacity which convinced her that her 
choice of the career of social investigator, was right. In 
addition to interviewing school attendance officers and 
so on, she studied at first hand the life of the docker, whether 
casual or permanent; talked with dock workers of every 
type and with their Trade Union officials; attended 
meetings of diverse kinds; and showed, at this early stage, 
that remarkable knack of getting on easily with men of 
all sorts and conditions which co-exists with what some 
find her arrogance in purely social relationships. At a 
meeting in the Tabernacle, Barking Road, advertised to 
appear and speak at a meeting of dock labourers, she 
had her first experience of being cheered on entry, as 
a public character. 

By August she had written a report of her experiences, 
and in September, thanks to the interposition of Herbert 
Spencer, this was published in the dignified pages of 
the Nineteenth Century. It later appeared in the first instal- 
ment of the Booth Enquiry, published in 1889. Encouraged 
by this, convinced 

“that although I know I have no talent and am almost 
lacking in literary faculty, I have originality of aim and of 
method, and I have faith that I am on the right track, and I have 
the sort of persistency that comes from a despair of my own 

she offered to undertake another piece of work in con- 
nexion with the Enquiry. This time she proposed to 
investigate the Sweating system; and in order to make 
the picture that was to result not only actual but dramatic, 
determined to live for a space among the workers, ‘‘as 
one of them.” 

“Whilst yet in the country, I started to plan out my campaign, 
so that the autumn and spring holiday months should be used 



to the greatest advantage. All the volumes, blue-books, pam- 
phlets and periodicals bearing on the subject of Sweating that 
I could buy or borrow were read and extracted; the Charles 
Booth secretariat was asked to supply particulars of the work- 
shops within the area selected for exploration, classified accord- 
ing to the numbers employed in each ; friends and relatives were 
pestered for introductions to public authorities, philanthropic 
agencies and all such enterprises (not only wholesale and retail 
clothiers, but also shippers, sewing machine companies and 
others) as were likely to have contact with East End workers, 
whether sub-contractors or wage-earners. Once settled in the 
Devonshire House Hostel, my time was mainly occupied in 
interviewing employers and employed, School Board visitors, 
Factory and Sanitary Inspectors and members of the Jewish 
Board of Guardians; in visiting the home workers and small 
masters whom I happened to know, and in accompanying rent- 
collectors, or the collectors of payments due for the hire of 
sewing-machines, on their rounds of visits. In the intervals of 
these interviews and observations I trained as a trouser-hand, 
successively in the work-rooms of the Co-operative Wholesale 
Society and in the ‘domestic workshop’ of a former tenant of 
Katharine Buildings, by way of preparation for ‘finding work’ 
during the busy season of the spring months.” 

The Nineteenth Century subsequently published the results 
of this particular piece of work in the shape of four articles, 
of which the one that scored a real success, rather to the 
author’s own annoyance, was the Pages of a WorkgirVs 
Diary 1 — a vivid picture of her own direct experience as 
a not-too-competent trouser-hand in an East End sweater’s 
workshop. This, she says, was “my one and only literary 
‘success’”; another was to follow, nearly forty years later, 
with the publication of My Apprenticeship. Out of her 
investigations, as out of her experiences, she was really 
in a position to make a true diagnosis of the Sweating 
problem, although not one that she could get accepted 
at the time. To her disgust, she found, when she was 
called to give evidence before the House of Lords Committee 
on the Sweating System, in May 1888, that less attention 

1 Reprinted in Problems of Industry , by S. and B. Webb. 


was given to the admirable sound sense of what she said, 
than to her dress and appearance. But the fact that she 
saw sweating as arising wherever working conditions 
escaped the regulations either of the Factory Acts or of 
the Trade Union, was, for herself, a shaft of light cast 
forward and one that was to carry her far. 

Altogether, her experiences with the Charles Booth 
Enquiry were decisive. It was then that her mind began 
to work on, and to challenge, the whole system established 
as the outcome of the Industrial Revolution, that “ most 
far-reaching experiment with the lives of other people,” 
and to seek for alternatives — if there were any — to the 
dictatorship of the few over the many. The Social Demo- 
cratic Federation loudly asserted that there was such an 
alternative, but she found little comfort in them: they 
were preaching 

“what seemed to me nothing but a catastrophic overturning of 
the existing order, by forces of whose existence I saw no sign, 
in order to substitute what appeared to me the vaguest of 
incomprehensible Utopias.” 

But there was another alternative — that of the “self- 
employment” practised by the Co-operators. Into this, 
she became anxious to enquire. Professor Alfred Marshall, 
whom she met during a visit to her great friends, the 
Creightons, at Cambridge, tried to put her off. She 
ought rather to settle down to study female labour. 

“If you devote yourself to the study of your own sex as an 
industrial factor, your name will be a household word two 
hundred years hence; if you write a history of Co-operation it 
will be superseded and ignored in a year or two,” 

he told her. 

Professor Marshall was, however, dealing with a keener 
mind than he realised. She knew that the unique quali- 
fication he saw her as possessing for the historian of female 



labour was precisely the fact that here was a very able woman 
who was not a Feminist — any more than he was. Indeed, 
largely under the influence of Mrs. Creighton and of 
Mrs. Frederic Harrison, she went so far, in the spring 
of 1889, as to append her name to the notorious manifesto, 
drafted by them and Mrs. Humphry Ward, against the 
giving of the vote to women. Nowhere does the reader 
of My Apprenticeship admire her candour more than in 
her explanation of how she came to take this false step. 
She sees quite clearly and faces quite frankly the advantage 
which an able woman, in her day, had in being a woman. 

“At the root of my anti-feminism lay the fact that I never myself 
suffered the disabilities assumed to arise from my sex. Quite 
the contrary; if I had been a man, family pressure and the 
public opinion of my class would have pushed me into a money- 
making profession; as a mere woman I could carve out a career 
of disinterested research. Moreover, in the craft I had chosen 
a woman was privileged. As an investigator she aroused less 
suspicion than a man, and, through making the proceedings more 
agreeable, she gained better information. Further, in those days, 
a competent female writer on economic subjects had, to an enter- 
prising editor, actually a scarcity value. Thus she secured 
immediate publication and, to judge by my own experience, was 
paid a higher rate than that obtained by male competitors of 
equal standing.” 

After which, there really is no more to be said. 

So far as Co-operation was concerned, neither Alfred 
Marshall nor anyone else could keep her off the grass, once 
she had made up her own mind to tread it. It was dreary 
enough grass, at first; months and months were spent by 
her in the country with her father, toiling through files 
of Congress Reports and the Co-operative journals. They 
might not teach her to understand the movement: but 
they did give her 

“a bunch of keys: key events, key technical terms and key 
personalities, by the use of w f hich I could gain the confidence of 


the persons I interviewed, unlock the hidden stores of experience 
in their minds, and secure opportunities for actually observing 
and recording the working constitution and diverse activities 
of the different types of organisation within the Co-operative 

So equipped, she could and did, in the months of freedom, 
attend sectional conferences, members’ meetings and the 
like all over the north: and settle down for days or weeks 
at a time in great centres like Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle 
or Glasgow', interviewing co-operators great and small. 
Mitchell, the Chairman, and J. C. Gray, the Secretary, 
became and remained friends. 

“Three or four times I have dined with the Central Board. A 
higgledy-piggledy dinner; good materials served up coarsely, 
and shovelled down by the partakers in a way that is not appetis- 
ing. But during dinner 1 get a lot of information, mostly chaff 
and rapid discussion. Occasionally, I am chaffed in a not 
agreeable way about matrimony and husbands, and the pro- 
priety of a match between me and Mitchell. But it is all good- 
natured, and I take it kindly. After dinner, in spite of the 
Chairman’s disapproval, we smoke cigarettes, and our conversa- 
tion becomes more of business camaraderie.” 

At “contacts" she must always have been remarkably 
good; and one aspect of these days which was to prove 
of immense and lasting value was that through them 
she got very thoroughly inside the Labour movement. 
In addition to Mitchell and Gray, John Burnett and 
J. J. Dent (both at this time of the Labour Department 
of the Board of Trade) and Benjamin Jones, the Co-operator, 
were warm friends, the last three indeed having been 
her “sponsors in the World of Labour.” In spite of her 
inevitable cigarette, to say nothing of their knowledge of 
her antecedents, she seldom had any difficulty of any 
kind in getting on with these intelligent and serious working 
men, or in getting them to take her seriously, even when 
she began to develop a distinctly heretical opinion about 



Co-operation itself. They thought, most of them, that 
what they were doing was to establish government by 
the producers; their ideal still was the “self-governing 
workshop,” although with minds dominated, like those 
of the economists of the day, by the barren distinction 
between “distribution” and “production,” they never 
dreamed of applying this ideal to their own employees. 
Really, as Beatrice Potter saw, with one of those swift 
imaginative flashes that make her far more than a mere 
investigator, they were doing something quite different 
from what they imagined: they were engaged in an effort 

“To organise industry from the consumption end, and to place it 
from the start, upon the basis of ‘production for use’ instead of 
‘ production for profit/ under the control and direction not of 
the workers as producers, but of themselves as consumers.” 

This was her first discovery; her second was that if demo- 
cracies of consumers are to serve as an alternative to 
private profit-making they require to be complemented 
by “democracies of workers by hand and brain — by 
Trade Unions and professional societies.” 

To herself, these discoveries were of cardinal importance. 
In a sense, their full relevance was not to be appreciated 
for many years: not, indeed, until the partners saw the 
secret of Soviet Russia's organisation as lying in the fact 
that there, State Social Economy is organised from the 
consumption end. Nevertheless at the time their impor- 
tance for her was immense. They were bringing her right 
up to the crucial experience: to the moment at which 
with full conviction, full knowledge of what it meant, 
and an unequalled understanding of the arguments 
intellectual and factual, she could break the shell of cir- 
cumstances and of habit, and make the great affirmation: 
“Now I am a Socialist.” With this affirmation, she won, 
for herself, irtcllectual freedom and a clear sense of purpose. 


On this affirmation, further, she was ready for the emotional 
transformation of her life, now at hand. 

In contributing, in 1928, some Reminiscences to the St. 
Martin's Review , (Reminiscences fascinatingly different in 
tone and approach from those which Sidney contributes 
to the same periodical,) she opens that dedicated to The 
Consumers’ Co-operative Movement by saying: 

“ If I had to answer in half a dozen words why I became a 
Socialist, I should say ‘ because I discovered the Co-operative 
Movement’; and were I allowed another six words to complete 
this tabloid confession, I should add 'and discussed it with 
Sidney Webb’.” 

The mysterious tides of fate were, in fact, swiftly now 
bringing them together. Her friend, J. J. Dent, had 
talked to her of the Fabians, and told her that 

“ the man who organises the whole business, drafts the resolu- 
tions and writes the tracts, is Sidney Webb.” 

But of the Fabians she knew as yet nothing but the names. 
When in 1889 a sudden turn for the worse in her father’s 
illness called her away from her Co-operative work, and 
she was face to face with the fact that he might now linger 
on, hardly conscious, in a veritable death-in-life, for 
months or even years, a mood of despair again almost 
overwhelmed her, and a sense of the wanton cruelty of 
life. At times, he hardly knew her: at others, she was 
for him the “little Bee” of years ago, and he murmured 
“I want one more son-in-law" — a remark that she took 
as a proof that he felt near his end, since, for her, he had 
previously discouraged matrimony. She did not then 
suspect, and Mr. Potter was never to know, how r near 
that son-in-law f now was. When she read Fabian Essays 
at The Argoed in the intervals of nursing her father, she 
“spotted” him, but had no idea then of an early meeting. 
Yet that meeting was to take place in the first days of 



January 1890; and was to arise directly out of her Co- 
operative work. Mr. Potter survived the crisis; and Beatrice, 
exhausted, was sent to London by her sister Kate, for 
a week’s rest and recreation. This, to her, meant the 
chance to fill in the historical background for her earlier 
chapters. In search of this, she applied to W. E. H. Lecky, 
whose reply, however, led her nowhere. She was on 
the look-out for another guide, when a friendly woman 
journalist said, 

‘‘Sidney Webb, one of the Fabian essayists, is your man. He 
knows everything and when you go out for a walk with him, he 
literally pours out information.” 

An interview was arranged ; on the spot, a list of sources, 
drafted out then and there “in a faultless handwriting,” 
was handed to her: 

“a few days later brought the first token of personal regard in 
the shape of a newly published pamphlet by the Fabian on 
the Rate of Interest, thus opening up a regular correspondence.” 

His next parcel contained the poems of Rossetti. On 
her next visit to London, in February, he dined with her 
to meet the Charles Booths. At Whitsun, they are travelling 
up to Glasgow together, for the Co-operative Congress; 
and Vaughan Nash, also of the party, notes 

“He is humbler than I have ever seen him before; quite a dif- 
ferent tone.” 

In the evening, they walked together through the Glasgow 
streets under a glorious sunset sky, knocking up against 
drunken Scots. 

“With glory in the sky and hideous bestiality on the earth, two 
Socialists came to a working compact.” 

Many meetings after that; a week-end at Haslemere, he 
staying with the Pearsall Smiths, she with the Frederic 


Harrisons, followed by a day in Epping Forest, where 
he read Keats and Rossetti aloud to her; then, throughout 
the later months of 1890, a busy correspondence. Partly 
about Trade Unionism, which she proposed next to investi- 
gate; partly about other things. The endless long letters 
wdiich served him as excuse for not walking in the Bavarian 
Hills when he and Shaw went to Oberammergau in 1890, 
were, of course, to her. They came and went daily, these 
letters. Could he read her handwriting? If so, he accom- 
plished what no one else in the world has been able to 

His own mind he seems to have known from the first. 
In her case, there were hesitations. Her father’s con- 
dition, anyhow, made any public engagement impossible: 
there had to be a certain amount of subterfuge about 
meeting, for that reason. Steadily, however, affection 
was completing what intellectual sympathy had begun. 
In the spring of 1891 she sent him the proof of her book, 
The Co-operative Movement. By the press it was received 
with respectful enthusiasm; he, however, said frankly 
that he was disappointed; the book ought to have taken 
her six weeks to write, not seven months. She needed 
his help, for future work. For more than future work 
she had come to realise that. In May, they became privately 
engaged. Only a few close friends, like Mrs. J. R. Green, 
the Pearsall Smiths, the Frederic Harrisons, and, of course, 
G. B. S., were in the secret. 

On the first day of 1892, Mr. Potter died. Six months 
later, in July, Sidney Webb and Beatrice Potter were 
married. They set forth together for Ireland, to combine 
a honeymoon with investigation into Trade Societies 
in Dublin. 



To her Diary, on July 7th, 1891, a couple of months 
after her engagement, and a year and some weeks before 
her marriage, Beatrice Potter confided a survey of the 
possibilities of what she often calls “the firm of Webb.” 
Like nearly everything she writes, it is unsparingly frank, 
and, in the circumstances, both illuminating and char- 

“We are both of us second-rate minds, but we are curiously 
combined. I am the investigator and he the executant; between 
us we have a wide and varied experience of men and affairs. We 
have also an unearned salary. These are unique circumstances. 
A considerable work should result if we use our combined talents 
with deliberate and persistent purpose.’ ’ 

As an expression of opinion on the part of a woman presum- 
ably in love — and that she was in love there is convincing 
ground for believing — this is certainly unusual. As an 
affirmation of purpose, it is not less striking. Pleasure 
of a personal kind out of the new association she expected 
and she got: about this, she says nothing. There was, 
in fact, no need to say anything. The point, for her, 
was that it, and the “unique circumstances” that went 
with it, were there to be used, to produce a “considerable 
work.” That was its justification and its end. 

He, who says somewhere that he is “not given to reflec- 
tion” — a process he distinguished with logical accuracy 
from ratiocination — has confided to no one what his 
expectations were. They were almost certainly much 



simpler. He saw an enrichment of life and work through 
happiness such as he had never experienced. No need 
for him to admonish himself towards ‘‘deliberate and 
persistent” action. That, with him, is native; with her, 
a fruit of the “intolerable toil of thought” and the conscious 
discipline of a will and imagination that, even after forty 
years of purpose, still sometimes flash out rebellious, and 
justify Fabians of the more sober mental hue in feeling, 
under their admiration, that she is, somehow', somewhere, 
fundamentally “flighty.” Did they understand or even 
guess how that tendency to flight into more skyey regions 
than he knew is just what fascinates him? 

However that may be, two minds in as complete unison 
as it is given to human beings to know, had laid down 
a plan of future action, and begun to work upon it, even 
before the deeds formally and finally constituting the 
“firm of Webb” were signed and sealed. The honeymoon 
journey carried on investigations already begun, while 
he was, nominally, doing a turn as her secretary, into 
Trade Unions. Together, and happy in being together, 
they inspected Trade Societies in Dublin; then crossed 
to Glasgow to attend the Congress meeting there. They 
paid some visits, including a week-end spent in Scotland 
with R. B. Haldane, a warm friend of both. Then they 
returned to London. The business of finding a home 
that w'ould suit them had already been accomplished. 
In house-hunting, as in everything else, it is an immense 
advantage to know' what you arc looking for. They knew. 
They wanted a place that should be at once reasonably 
central, airy', sunny, big enough for their books and their 
secretary or secretaries, and within their means. About 
fashionable quarters, good addresses and so, they cared 
not one jot. Nor did they care what anybody else thought. 

Among the “unique circumstances” mentioned by her 
is the possession of an “unearned salary.” England, so 


she often remarks, was, before the war, the freest country 
in the world to live in, for anyone so equipped. They 
had that freedom. They had £1,000 a year. It was 
enough : but if it was to provide the things they thought 
really important, it had got to be carefully expended. 
If secretaries, foreign travel from time to time, country 
excursions, and aid to good causes were to be covered, 
high thinking must go with plain living. She had years 
of experience behind her in the administration of a very 
large income, and the running of very large houses. In 
the choice of an abode now, as in its menage, new standards 
had got to be applied, and were applied: even a touch of 
the ‘discriminating penuriousness ’ of Mrs. Potter. Unlike 
most people, they arc parsimonious about small comforts 
for themselves, generous in gifts to others. Rent, now, 
was not allowed to consume too large a proportion 
of income. 

41, Grosvenor Road met their requirements. It is 
just inconvenient enough, from the conventional stand- 
point, and just near enough to some of London’s forgotten 
and forsaken fringes, to be, for Westminster, relatively 
cheap. Yet it is so near to the Houses of Parliament, 
and, what was more important at the time, to the head- 
quarters of the London County Council in Spring Gardens, 
as to give any moderately active person just the right 
amount of morning exercise by way of a walk. 

For any patriotic Londoner, the sheer waste of oppor- 
tunity presented by our river is truly tragic, and nowhere 
more so than in regard to this stretch, right in the heart 
of the metropolis. There is only one side of our Thames 
to walk or drive on, or see from, whereas the Seine, like 
any rationally managed river running through a great 
city, has two banks; and, even on that one side, it is impos- 
sible to pursue an unimpeded course. Until very recent 
days, anyone who set out to walk westward from West- 


minster, found, very soon after he had passed the House 
of Lords, both scale and splendour slipping away into 
squalor. On his right, a series of small dwellings, good 
in design, but visibly decaying and gone down in the 
world, continued round the corner after he had turned 
on to the river front, where, after a brief period, he became 
involved in double rows of commercial buildings, wharves 
and warehouses, blocking any outlook, and in themselves 
dingy and depressing to the last degree. Now, at last, 
the shabby little houses into which Abingdon Street used 
to sink, are being pulled down and replaced by vast office 
structures, on the American plan, in soaring glass and 
concrete, leading on to the new Lambeth Bridge. Even 
now, however, the corner once turned, and the river 
glimpsed, the walker, after passing one line of modern 
if ugly houses which have an unimpeded view, and skirting 
the Tate Gallery, finds his view gone, and his sun cut off 
from him by the hideous Army Clothing Factory on one 
side and still uglier and very shabby commercial shacks 
and dug-outs — one cannot call them buildings — on the 
other. In 1892, the first twenty odd houses of Grosvenor 
Road resembled those round the corner. There were 
three or four small, low dwellings, almost cottages; there 
was a somewhat rowdy and disreputable public-house: 
there was Mowlem’s Works, not too bad as a building, 
but with no business to be there; there were three or 
four larger, older houses, whose fine interior panelling 
showed that they had known better days, now falling into 
grim and grimy dis-repair. Then came an oasis, of a 
kind — a row of ornate modern dwellings, with their front 
door steps lifted above basements and adorned with much 
meretricious plaster work. These houses were moderately 
rented for their size, owing to their undesirable neighbours 
— decay to the left, Millbank Penitentiary to the right. 
By way of compensation, they have, and had, a marvellous 


and unimpeded outlook. Their windows look direct on 
to the water, with Lambeth and Doulton’s factory as 
landmarks on the Surrey side. 

In the heart of London, the place, nevertheless, had 
the air of remoteness and inacessibility that belong to a 
spot conveniently reached only by walking or driving. 
The roadway was of course not traffic-free, even in the 
’nineties, but in those days before the ubiquitous motor, 
and above all, before the motor lorry, it was relatively 
quiet and, at night, absolutely so. Air washed and sur- 
rounded it. Sunshine streamed through the houses. 
Facing east by south, the front windows held all the morning 
sun, at all times of the year, while the principal sitting- 
rooms, both on the entrance floor and on the floor above, 
had windows also at the back. In front, nothing between 
them and the river, as, in 1928, the inhabitants were to 
realise to their cost. Then, they looked out as from the 
ark, from upper casements, to see dining-room tables 
and chairs floating on a turbid flood which had inundated 
the first-floor apartments. But floods are rare; they are 
a risk anyone who has ever lived on the river will gladly 
take, so endlessly and variously fascinating is its panorama. 
Grosve.nor Road, in addition to the magic of sky and 
water, has wonders of its own, since, with the wind in 
certain directions, the dome of St. Paul’s can be seen 
rising fairy-like above the wharves and warehouses of 
the Surrey side, beyond the curves of the bridges, or 
sparkling like a jewel in the evening sun. This, in the 
day-time; at night, mystery and enchantment brood over 
the entire scene. 

So, when they found a house to be had in Grosvenor 
Road, they acquired a long lease, at an inclusive rental 
of £110, which was near enough to the tenth of income 
regarded, in those spacious days, as the proper proportion 
to be assigned, in a family budget, to house room. On 


No. 41, even now that Grosvenor Road has had its identity 
merged in Millbank, a tablet will no doubt in due course 
be placed to tell succeeding ages that for well-nigh forty 
years, the Webbs dwelt and wrought here. Externally 
it is, it must be confessed, a distressingly ugly house, although 
the Virginian creeper is doing its best to soften both its 
harsh colour and its ill-proportioned shape. A bad specimen 
of an architecturally bad period, ornate outside and space- 
wasteful inside, it is showy without being dignified, and 
the lavish decoration accentuates the shoddy design. 
Tenants more indifferent to these aspects, however, could 
hardly have been found. The rent was right; the location 
was right; the size was right; the number of rooms was 
right. They had agreeable neighbours. There was Mrs. 
J. R. Green, who really ‘‘invented” Grosvenor Road, 
at 43; there was B. F. C. Costello, an able Progressive 
colleague on the County Council, next door; there were 
the Pearsall Smiths; there was H. W. Massingham. And 
they knew, for that matter, that of neighbours they were 
independent; few were the persons in London or else- 
where who were not only too eager to come and see them. 
They meant them to come, and they did come. But 
there was no hurry about that. 

The social side of 41, Grosvenor Road, which was to 
become so famous, and was so important, did not come 
fully into play for a year or so. With skill and tact Mrs. 
Webb let that side develop slowly. They made no rush 
at people. That was not their way. Socially, as politically, 
the method of permeation was gradual, and carried 
through with the minimum of display. It was as a work- 
shop that they saw the house in the first instance. It 
was from that point of view that they rejoiced in the 
existence of a little room at the turn of the stairs, half- 
way up towards the long white painted drawing-room. 
This drawing-room they furnished very simply, so that 


it could accommodate the maximum number of people, 
with plain matting on the floors, some plain chairs, and 
a number of by no means remarkable water colours (wedding 
presents at a guess) on the walls. The little room they 
at once saw as the Secretary's den. It was lined with 
blue-books: blue-books, which, despite the annual turn- 
out, on which Mrs. Webb, as a well-trained housekeeper, 
insisted, flowed over into the narrow hall and got mixed 
up among the coats and hats there: and also lined the 
walls of the long narrow double room on the entrance 
floor, which served at once as dining-room and study 
for the partners. I remember, on the first occasion on 
which I went to dine in Grosvenor Road, wondering, 
since it was one of those London houses whose anatomy 
one perceives at a glance, where was the study, and deciding, 
that for greater quiet they must have converted some 
airy upstairs bedroom to that purpose. It was not so. 
Actually, they worked on the dining-room table. There, 
after breakfast had been cleared, they settled down; 
thence, at a quarter to one, they removed themselves 
and their papers, on the entry of the maid to lay lunch. 
To me, at the time, it seemed an intolerable arrange- 
ment. To them, it was not intolerable, and that for an 
interesting reason. He deals with papers of every sort, — 
letters, reports, documents — so rapidly that his desk never 
has any paperasses on it. Whereas most of us glance at 
an Agenda or Report, coming by the post, and lay it aside 
for future study: make notes and have to keep them some- 
where: his eye travels at an incredible speed over written 
or printed matter, and records what he wants to retain 
indelibly on his memory. So, while the wastepaper basket 
bulged every morning, the files were not there. He once 
gravely offended a most important personage who brought 
him a solemn document to study by handing it back after 
the briefest and apparently most casual inspection. He 


had to prove — as he easily did — that he had mastered 
all that was in it, and a good deal that was not, before 
the personage was mollified. Over and above this trait, 
was the fact that both of them knew all that there was 
to be known about how to use a secretary. Paperasses , 
such as had to be retained; the piles of separate sheets 
on which the perfect note-taker, according to their 
technique, keeps his notes; the dossiers of all sorts that 
recorded results of investigations — this lived not on their 
table but in the files in the Secretary’s room. Their table 
was therefore, each morning, as fair and clear as that 
of a Minister of the Crown, or great Captain of Industry. 
The bigger the man, the fewer the papers. 

A daily routine was ordered from the start. Very often, 
in these early days, their Secretary, F. W. Galton, would 
arrive at Grosvenor Road for an 8 o’clock breakfast. While 
the table, that function rapidly despatched, was being 
cleared, the three would sit round the fire with cigarettes, 
and he would be instructed as to the course of the day’s 
work — where he should go for material, whom he should 
see, what he should prepare for them. Often this involved 
journeyings into the provinces. After he had spent some 
time in any centre, making preliminary surveys, the 
partners would go down for a week end or longer if necessary, 
to complete the enquiries and see key people, on the spot. 
As a rule however, when Mr. Galton went off, either 
to his den above or to the world without, they sat down 
to the table. 

Among the services for which subsequent students are 
in their debt is the creation of a technique of social research. 
That was largely worked out at this period, to be employed 
by them ever after. Of it they give a most illuminating 
account in the Preface to Industrial Democracy (published 
in 1897). At this stage they were themselves doing most 
of the research lying behind their two great books on 


Trade Unionism: taking the notes, studying the documents, 
making the interviews, which, for later books, were largely 
prepared by secretaries. Certainly no picture of their 
life at this, or any other period, can begin to be truthful 
which does not put work — hard, unremitting, regular, 
sustained and often dull — in the forefront. No work of 
their kind but includes great stretches of sheer drudgery. 
Companionship sweetened this; but it was there; they 
faced it, and carried it through, day after day, week after 
week, year after year. The structures that they reared 
may be criticised from many points of view; never from 
that of shoddiness. 

Work occupied every morning. In any work jointly 
done, there is an element of mystery; and perhaps the 
question 4 4 How exactly do you divide it?” is one that 
cannot be answered : least of all when between joint workers 
there is a complete sympathy. But, on a normal morning, 
after their secretary had left them, they would, together, 
read the notes of interviews and visits, and the precis of 
documents, already made; made either by one of them- 
selves or by the secretary. They read, and discussed 
them. At a certain stage, her eyes would light up. She 
would spring to her feet and pace up and down, waving 
her cigarette. 4 4 That implies ...” She would then start 
off, on a chain of argument, he swiftly writing the while, 
using his matchless power of finding appropriate and 
exactly fitting words for what she was sketching out in 
broad and vivid outline. Any idea or general view thus 
struck out by either was subjected to an intensive mutual 
testing. Then, after thoroughly thrashing it out together, 
they took it to be tried on others. 

Among those others, Bernard Shaw and Graham Wallas 
came first. Far from breaking up any of his old friend- 
ships, Mrs. Webb accepted them; and, in the Fabian 
Quartette, Sydney Olivier having gone to Jamaica, she 


took his place, and the new Four were well-nigh as insepar- 
able as the old. Shaw, in particular, during the years 
between 1892 and his own marriage in 1898, spent prac- 
tically every holiday with them, and was also constantly 
at Grosvenor Road. Shaw and Wallas read the proofs 
of Trade Unionism , when it had reached that stage; to 
Shaw, “our oldest friend and comrade” they express 
gratitude for doing a like service with regard to The Decay 
of Capitalist Civilisation , in 1923, “in the midst of a general 
election in which we were otherside engaged.” At every 
stage, long before that, these two were taken into counsel, 
for argument, discussion, the most thorough sifting and 
testing of every view and point. So were many others, 
on specific points. It is in an atmosphere of friendliness, 
of frequent cheerful, open talk, of impassioned and never 
dreary preoccupation with their chosen piece of work, 
that one must see them, if one is to see them at all, in 
the early days at Grosvenor Road; and indeed throughout 
their lives. They took their work with them, wherever 
they went, just as they talked about it, trying out their 
ideas, with everyone they met. When they left London 
for the country — generally Surrey — in the summer months, 
they changed the scene but not the occupation. Of the 
life they lived when thus withdrawn, an amusing vignette 
is given by Shaw in a letter to Ellen Terry. He writes 
from Dorking, in May 1897, when he, his future wife 
(Miss Payne Townshend) and Miss Beatrice Creighton 
(daughter of the Bishop, for whom, while he lived, as 
for his widow afterwards, Mrs. Webb had a particular 
admiration) were sharing a house there; 

“ I wonder what you would think of our life — our eternal political 
shop; our mornings of dogged writing, all in our separate rooms ; 
our ravenous plain meals; our bicycling; the Webbs* incorrigible 
spooning over their industrial and political science.” 


Bicycling was one of their great recreations, in those days. 
They all bicycled ardently in the country; Mrs. Webb 
used also to ride in Battersea Park, in company with Charles 
Trevelyan and other active young politicians. It was 
apropos of this bicycling that, according to one of their 
intimates, Sidney was seen for the first time to be thor- 
oughly flustered. She had a slight accident, when thus 
riding, and was brought home in a cab, her blouse be- 
spattered with blood. Then, for a moment, if only for 
a moment, he “went off the deep end.” Shaw tells another 
story, to prove that, unlike most of the ladies of his 
acquaintance, Beatrice was never in love with him. They 
were all three staying somewhere in the country, and 
in a shed attached to the house, he discovered an authentic 
velocipede, such as he had never ridden. He brought 
it forth in triumph, Beatrice looking on, and tried to make 
it go, without success. At last, he was driven to taking 
advantage of the fact that the lawn was arranged in a 
series of sharply sloping terraces: on the down grade, 
the thing did go, only to collapse again on the flat, throwing 
him violently and suddenly to the ground, and bringing 
him, so he says, to within an ace of departure from this 
mortal scene, at each essay. She, however, instead of 
sympathising or showing any concern, laughed with 
delighted amusement. The sounds brought Sidney to 
the window; he looked out, enquired what was going 
on, and came running forth, intent on trying what his 
skill could effect. Whereupon Beatrice cried with insistent 
passion, “No, no, Sidney, you mustn’t.” From which 
moment, G. B. S. realised the bitter truth. Or so he 
says. Nevertheless, with native nobility, he continued 
at the opening of each bicycling season to get out Sidney’s 
bicycle, as well as his own, and see that it was in order — 
an operation which his friend was incapable of performing 
for himself. Skill with his hands is no part of Mr. Webb’s 


equipment: nor do most of those who know him believe 
that he is speaking the whole truth when, in Who's Who , 
he puts down “walking” as his recreation. He does walk 
— but his walking is part of the regimen of the regulated life. 

Of that regulated life, so definitely accepted and deter- 
minedly followed, the shape, in these early days, has a 
fairly simple outline. The mornings were devoted to 
common work. Lunch, more often than not, produced 
somebody, or several somebodies — the number very soon 
grew — to whom they wanted to talk, on whom they wanted 
to try out some idea connected with their work. Then, 
on five afternoons of the week for nine months of the year, 
he trotted off to the London County Council, of which 
he was a most active member for eighteen years. She 
occupied herself variously. Perhaps some hours were 
devoted to that Diary she has kept all her life: the Diary 
which supplies the most vivid portions of My Apprenticeship 
and will, when it is published in full, be one of the great 
books — though not for us. She went out to see her friends, 
or they came to see her. There was never a time when 
the call of friendship was not followed; thus, between 
1892 and his death (despite his expressed views on her 
marriage) she went down constantly to Brighton, to see 
old Herbert Spencer, and was at his side when he died 
in 1903. Many other instances there are, of swift and 
affectionate intervention on her part. She might be 
rather too fond of trying to “arrange” the lives of her 
friends, but her attachments were genuine, warm, and 
lasting. If, as time went on, they tended to see more and 
more of the people who could be “useful,” that was part 
of the price of the “life according to plan,” to which they 
were committed. That plan, in its turn, gave to their 
existence so much of a uniform texture, that one may 
well, here, try to see it, as it was to be, in broad outline, 
throughout the best part of forty years. 


So far as work went, they began as they meant to go 
on, and did go on. Their standard of work is tremendous; 
for forty years they have worked with a passion and at 
a pace that is a standing reproach to slackness, and 
influences, to some degree, everyone who comes in contact 
with them. In this, there is no change between 1892 
and 1932. But, as time went on, the portion of their 
non-working time devoted to a thoroughly planned sociability 
sensibly increased. Thus, if many of their later visitors 
would be hard put to it to give any picture, however 
rough, of the first-floor drawing-room, that is because 
it was apt to be too full of people for any of its non-human 
features to be discerned, and of people so varied and 
often so remarkable that no other impression but of them, 
and of the noise they made, could be registered. People 
met each other there who had never met before and 
often never met again. From some point of view, or for 
some purpose, they were, at the moment, “key people”; 
some of them might be, to all appearance, unimportant: 
others were visibly terribly important; there they all were. 
Everybody who is anybody in any of the multitudinous 
worlds that make up London, with the possible exception 
of the merely social, has been to the Webbs, at some time 
or other. Mrs. Webb, says Mr. Wells, in that portrait 
which would be so much more brilliant if it were more 
accurate and less malicious, 

“got together all sorts of interesting people in or about the public 
service, she mixed the obscurely efficient with the ill-instructed 
famous and the rudderless rich, got together in one room more 
of the factors in our strange jumble of a public life than had ever 
easily met before. She fed them with a shameless austerity that 
kept the conversation brilliant, on a soup, a plain fish, and mut- 
ton or boiled fowl and milk pudding, with nothing to drink but 
whisky and soda, and hot and cold water, and milk and lemon- 
ade. Everybody was very glad indeed to come to that.” 


They certainly were, Mr. Wells, for several years, among 
them. And why not, one might ask. At the same time, 
this point about the food deserves a word, since many 
visitors to 41 did undoubtedly come away with the impres- 
sion that they had not had enough to eat. Perhaps they 
had not, in those days when by our slimmer standards, 
so many people ate too much. There also were stages 
when she was trying some new diet fad, and, of course, 
imposed it: that she knows better than other people what 
is good for them, is the conviction of hers that has caused 
more trouble than any other. In general the food was 
very plain, and you took what was offered: there were 
no choices. Food undoubtedly figured in the chapter of 
economies. But my own impression is that, if there was 
nothing specially tempting either to eye or palate about 
the table, the food was there. After all, Mrs. Webb retained 
the same two maids almost throughout her married life, 
and maids do not stay where there is not enough to eat. 
Part perhaps of the reason why some visitors felt hungry 
is that not only does she herself eat extraordinarily little 
(there are friends to-day who hold that, partly out of 
sheer asceticism, she starves herself), but both host and 
hostess eat extraordinarily fast, even when they are talking: 
so that it often happened that plates were being cleared 
away before slower jaws had emptied them, far less asked 
for more. The time actually spent at table was cut to 
a minimum. They both wanted to be talking: that, rather 
than eating, was what meals were for. And the talk was 
not of the kind to assist digestion for the ordinary mortal. 

It was good talk, no question about that; much better 
talk than is generally achieved when numbers of dis- 
tinguished persons are assembled. It was about interesting 
topics, and had a strong feel of reality and central L 'ort- 
ance; something might even “come of it.” Mrs. Webb, 
in particular, if a poor listener, not only talks with keenness, 


freshness, a brightly personal approach, and, every now 
and then, a sudden swoop of positive intellectual brilliance; 
she has a rare faculty for gathering a conversation together, 
bringing it to a point. If it failed of being the best kind 
of talk, the reason perhaps was that this “point” was a 
little too obvious. It was all for something: not, as is 
the best talk, for itself. The mere play of mind on mind 
is not one of their pleasures: nor was talk at their house, 
even when the company was intimate, of the kind to 
evoke those long pauses, in which ideas, feelings, even 
aspirations, reverberate, and set up sympathetic echoes. 
They talk, as they walk, for a purpose. They collected 
people and talked to them. They tried out ideas on them. 
Sensitive interlocutors at times had the feeling that, their 
opinions or reactions once extracted, they were “placed”: 
and, placed, were done with. To discover what they were 
like, in themselves, was no concern or interest of their 
host and hostess. They had got them classified; they 
“knew where they were”; as mere individuals, they did 
not signify. They were put down in a certain tabular 
column, and that was that. “People,” she once remarked, 
“are really quite simple.” Whether or no, they do not, 
as a rule, care to be thought so, or to feel themselves assigned 
to a category. 

She, it is true, can, at times, talk nonsense, of a kind, 
and delights in gossip: mere gossip, stories about people. 
With a kind of ironic and slightly contemptuous interest, 
she keeps in touch with the follies of the world of Society 
with a big S, the world she so definitely left. She also 
has a very strong feeling about conduct; a Puritan outlook 
on more things than mere eating and drinking; and gossip 
feeds this. Even here, however, an extrinsic interest can 
be sensed, behind her easy narrative flow; the stories are 
being arranged, like the people and the facts, into materials 
for judgment and classification: the thing, even at its 


apparent lightest, has an ulterior motive. “Deliberate and 
persistent purpose ” has, in fact, entered into the blood. 

It is perhaps because this ulterior motive was too easy 
to perceive that they were not always as successful in 
conversion as, with their combined talents, they ought 
to be. But it is also the case that they are never out to 
“catch” people unawares. Of course, they did, again 
and again, impress their views on their colleagues and 
associates in common enterprises; for example, in 1894, 
Sidney wrote out the Minority Report of the Labour 
Commission, presented over the names of Tom Mann 
and his associates, just as he was, in 1909, to write the 
Minority Report of the Poor Law Commission, to cite 
only two cases out of a long series. They not only talked 
with friends and allies: they talked with any and every 
possible or actual adversary who could be, at best, con- 
verted into an ally, or deflected from opposition, or, at 
worst, 4 'sized up.” Year in year out, they gathered the 
bright young men, and, to a slightly less degree, the bright 
young women, just down from the Universities, or doing 
something interesting in some field or other in the Provinces 
or in London, or anywhere on the face of the globe. They 
gathered them in, mixed them, and “permeated” them, 
in so far as they were capable of sustaining that operation. 
But entice them blindly into the Socialist fold they never 
did. On the contrary, at a certain point, they invariably 
put before the acolyte every difficulty — social, professional 
and personal — that he might be going to meet. What 
did his wife think? Had he realised what such a step 
might mean professionally? Was his faith strong enough 
to sustain being laughed at? Through key-people, they 
certainly did, over years, exercise a far-reaching influence, 
impossible to measure or assess; the point to be made 
is that there is nothing Machiavellian about the process. 
It is, on the contrary, almost shamelessly open. 


Not only do they reinforce one another in an almost 
total incapacity to be bored either by people or by things 
with any bearing on their preoccupation: they are alike 
in an utter absence of secretiveness about it. This last 
quality, rare enough in writers and not common among 
politicians, is one of their outstanding characteristics. 
Neither can ever have known what it is to be afraid of 
testing an opinion by the utmost openness of discussion, 
nor has either ever had any impulse to keep hidden any- 
thing of public interest. When they were on Trade 
Unionism, John Burns, Tom Mann, Ben Tillett and a 
whole host of Trade Union leaders were constantly about 
the house: every point at issue was put to them. Employers 
and economists, so far as they could be got at, were treated 
in the same way. The book, when it came out, held 
neither surprises nor shocks for anyone concerned with 
its subject matter. It has been the same throughout 
their career. On Education, on the Poor Law, or Local 
Government, as, much later, on Russia, they never had 
anything “up their sleeves.” All their results have always 
been presented, and designed to be presented, to the 
public. Sometimes, it is true, public presentation is made 
by, and public thanks, if any, given to, somebody else. 
That never troubles them. They are as generous in giving 
as in taking. In all their work, they meet friend and 
enemy in the open, from the start. They read the MSS. 
of other people, and they get other people to read theirs. 
They revel in critics on the hearth. Shyness, of any kind, 
is not in them. One odd result is that they have been 
freely stigmatised as arch-plotters, simply because so many 
people have always known about their “plots,” as when 
they were “working” anything or anybody, or “getting” 
at anyone. 

Actually, they are planners rather than plotters, but 
the planned life is rare enough to seem to most people 


almost like a plot. That is, perhaps, the smallest among 
the sacrifices it exacts. Any form of life exacts some: 
of this, the major compensation is that it gave them 
the sort of freedom they valued. Have they not defined 
personal liberty as “the practical opportunity of exercising 
our faculties and fulfilling our desires ?” They saw order, 
regulation, plan, in a word, as the road to this end for 
themselves. Arnold Bennett, who occurs to the mind 
as it seeks for comparable cases of loyalty to what the 
Germans call “Planmasessigkeit” — that thing for which 
the English language has no word of its own — expresses, 
in an illuminating passage in his Diary, his regret his own 
planned direction was not more steady and more strict. 

“Another example of the indiscipline of the brain. Yet I have 
gradually got my brain far better under control than that of most 
people. Always haunted by dissatisfaction at the discrepancy 
between reason and conduct ! No reason why conduct should not 
conform to the ideas of reason, except inefficient control of the 
brain. This that I am always preaching, and with a success of 
popular interest, too, I cannot perfectly practise. The rough 
carpentry instead of fine cabinetry. The unnecessary friction. 
The constant slight inattention to my own rules. I could be a 
marvel to others and to myself if I only practised more sincerely. 
Half an hour in the morning in complete concentration on the 
living-through of the day, and I should work wonders! But 
this all-important concentration is continually interrupted — 
interruptions which weaken it; sometimes deliberately aban- 
doned for matters of admittedly inferior importance. Strange! 
One can only stick to it.” 1 

Much in this passage, so drearily familiar to the average 
worker, striving after, and failing to achieve, steady con- 
centration, may read, to the Webbs, as simply funny. 
They have worked “wonders” and do not wonder at them. 
They are not a marvel to themselves, and would not 
greatly care to be a marvel to others. Immune, too, 
they are to many of the distractions that called to Arnold 

1 Diary , May 23rd, 1908. 


Bennett. No inclination, with either, to sit too long over 
mere food and drink; no perilous questionings from the 
merely sensual man; no insistent calls from the purely 
aesthetic. By unnerving response to the simply beautiful 
they can rarely have been troubled; when the morning 
sun poured in at the windows of Grosvenor Road,, making 
the water dance and the sky sparkle, they felt little nausea 
of the desk, no call to the open road. These immunities 
must have helped to make discipline lighter and easier. 
Yet no reader of My Apprenticeship can doubt that, in her 
case, some sacrifice was involved in accepting it, even 
as an act of deliberate choice. 

Part of the price that must be paid in accepting and 
sustaining a routine may be more obvious to their friends 
than to themselves. The things they have not got, which 
made it relatively easy for them to do it, have been cleverly 
pointed out again and again. Countless caricaturists, in 
word and in line, have made them, for our generation, 
the classic exemplars of a monumental industry purchased 
at the price of human charm. Although this cleverness 
is really too easy, its excuse is that they share certain 
common peculiarities; and that, as a couple, especially 
in days when they were younger, there was something 
about their aspect and their approach that can only be 
called funny. This element leapt to life for the reader 
of a rhapsodic description, which must have deeply dis- 
pleased them, made in the heyday of the Poor Law cam- 
paign, by Alfred Ollivant. He spoke there of “ The Darkling 
Lady and her little Lord.” The visible contrast between 
Beatrice, handsome, flashing, dominant, aggressively vital; 
swift and masterful in gesture both of mind and body: 
an eagle among human birds ; and Sidney, tiny, unassuming, 
soft, husky and slightly lisping in utterance, glasses never 
secure on nose, yet never taken off, a mere modest sparrow — 
this contrast could seem absurd, did not the observer 


suddenly catch, in his eye, a glint suggesting that he, 
too, sees what the observer is thinking: sees, and does 
not in the least mind; a fact that, swiftly redressing 
the balance, makes the said observer slightly hot behind 
the collar. 

Set, as they have now been for so many years, against 
a chosen background of such strenuous and constant 
endeavour as is a challenge to average inconstancy of aim 
and slackness of action, they provoke those whom they 
thus shame. The easy retort has been to say that they 
have no souls. At some stage or other, the ascetic does 
paradoxically rouse the hedonist to such an accusation. 
Can it be sustained, in their case, except by leaving out 
most of the facts? That was of course the trick employed 
by Mr. Wells: and his New Machiavelli , written in 1911, 
not long after he had flounced out of the Fabian Society 
in a pet, is the one picture of the partnership that is familiar 
to the common reader. But Mr. Wells is not merely 
malicious : he is stupid ; he leaves out the two major premisses 
that have made the life according to plan possible and 

The first is the simple fact of mutual attachment. That 
the Webbs are, as are few, happy — this is the most obvious 
fact about them for anyone who knows them. Some- 
thing deeper than cheerfulness and warmer than optimism 
surrounds them. Its warmth is its unmistakable note. 
Nonsense like E. T. Raymond’s “two typewriters clicking 
as one” could only have been invented from reading. 
Here is not comradeship only, here is loving comradeship. 
Sheer blindness to refuse to see it, because its form is odd. 
When they were younger, what Shaw calls their “spooning” 
embarrassed some of their friends; but behind it was a 
stuff which has securely stood the test of time. The one 
thing either of them really dreads is the possibility of 
separation. Could he compound with the Deity, he 


would, so he has said more than once, gladly give up his 
one year of juniority in return for an assurance that when 
Death comes to either, it may come to both. They have 
their own quaint ways of expressing this close affection. 
Once, when they had as guests a young couple to whom 
they are much attached, they took them out for a walk. 
Sidney and the husband got on ahead. He looked back 
at the other two. 

“I can tell you what Beatrice is saying to your wife.” 


“She is telling her that we call marriage the waste- 
paper basket of the emotions.” 

They waited for the ladies to join them. When they 
came up, they were asked what they had been talking 

“I was telling her that we call marriage the waste-paper 
basket of the emotions,” said Beatrice. 

With this first premiss of mutual affection, the second 
condition of success is closely associated. They are Socialists 
who have, with set intention, devoted their lives to the 
furtherance of their belief. They have a view of happiness 
radically connected with it. Tolstoi, when one of his 
sons was about to marry, wrote him a letter in which 
he speaks frankly of the disappointments often experienced 
in the state, and goes on: 

‘‘ All this, because the idea shared by many, that life is a vale of 
tears, is just as false as the idea shared by the great majority, 
the idea to which youth and health and riches incline you, that 
life is a place of entertainment. Life is a place of service, and in 
that service one has to suffer at times a great deal that is hard to 
bear, but more often to experience a great deal of joy. But that 
joy can only be real if people look upon their lives as service, and 
have a definite object in life outside of themselves and their own 
happiness .” 1 

1 Reminiscences of my Father , Count Ilya Tolstoi. 


Take any view you like of the service actually rendered 
to humanity by the Webbs, it is yet impossible to deny 
that to render such service has been their steady, unswerving 
and disinterested aim throughout. In its course they 
have had to meet the normal share of misunderstanding, 
of criticism, even of ridicule. Against resentment, against 
bitterness, against all the myriad forms of uncharitableness, 
private and public, they have been protected by the 
integrity of their will to serve, and by the secure possession 
of their private talisman of affection. They do not mind 
what anyone says. They just go on with their work. As 
G. D. H. Cole said, in a moment of not uncommon exasper- 
ation, “The worst of Webb is that he is permanent.” 

Permanent, and in a sense not only a permanent chal- 
lenge to hedonism, but a permanent question mark to 
the mind. For the plan does exact its price; something 
there is that is lacking. What is it? Partly, of course, 
all that is lumped together, vaguely and loosely, under 
the general vague head of “aesthetic values.” A largish 
compartment of human experience, this: to some, the 
most vital, that which gives significance to the rest. For 
them, in any serious sense, it is not there. And there 
is something else, too, harder to get into words. When 
Mr. Wells’ egregious hero comes out of the house in Chambers 
Street, which is blatantly a picture of 41, Grosvenor Road, 
and leaves its “administrative fizzle” to pass out into 
the London night, he is intensely aware, emotionally, of 
a quality in its obscure and deep pulsations that eludes 
the Webb thermometer: of some clement, irrational and 
yet passionate, in human creatures and in human existence, 
which it does not register and cannot account for. For 
those who do leave it out, living may be easier, yet they 
are ignorant of something the complete man must know. 
One interrogates their story, in the effort to track this 
blind spot down. The things left out, so far as one can 


give them names, are mainly painful. Neither has known 
either poverty or the grinding economic anxiety and 
strain that undermine confidence, as they undermine 
health. Since they discovered one another, neither has 
known any acute emotional stress, shock or loss. Neither 
has any acquaintance with the acrid taste of failure, in 
the world’s esteem, or in their own. Toil, sweetened by 
companionship, has been made easy by success. They 
have, throughout, been able to go their way in freedom. 
Is it, perhaps, this relative ease of circumstances and of 
accommodation: this feeling one gets that the world’s 
woes, hard as they work to redress them, do not keep 
them awake at nights and that its more searching and 
tormenting problems remain largely unplumbed : is it 
this that gives to their touch a distinct flavour of dry 
unreality, and makes it natural for them to see people 
in categories and express them in institutions? To define 
what is left out is as difficult as not to be aware of it. It 
is the standing puzzle about them, who are, otherwise, 
the least puzzling people in the world. 



In the first volume of her fascinating Memories of Lenin , 
Krupskaya, his wife and life companion in work, records 
how, during their years of exile in Siberia, between 1898 
and 1901, “In the mornings, Vladimir Ilyitch and I set 
to and translated the Webbs, which Struve had obtained 
for us.” It was from this translating that this other remark- 
able pair acquired such English as they brought with 
them, when, in their second period of exile, they came 
to London in 1902. Their spoken English then proved 
unintelligible to the natives; nor did they then or ever 
meet the authors with whom they had been busy. The 
work that occupied them in their Minussink mornings 
was of course The History of Trade Unionism : when it came 
to the second part of what Krupskaya calls “the Webbs,” 
Industrial Democracy , although Lenin’s name was affixed 
to this translation also, the actual work had been done 
by another hand. 

Lenin’s swift recognition was a bright symbol of the 
effect, first in England itself and, very soon in every country 
of the world, including in due course China and Japan, 
produced by the publication of the first joint product of 
the labour of the partners. There are a few books, in 
history, which are events, and are recognised as events 
on their appearance. The History of Trade Unionism was 
one of these. Reviews of a column or more length, on the 
day of publication, in all the leading journals, sounded 
a universal chorus of admiration. In approach, in handling, 



in theme, the work was hailed as ‘ 4 masterly ” by The 
Times , as “invaluable” by the Observer , as “true history ” 
by the Newcastle Chronicle. When the experts followed 
the journalists they had, out of self-respect, to ask some 
questions, and posit some doubts; but they too, had to 
and did pay tribute to the fullness, the accuracy, the 
lucidity and the power of the authors. When Industrial 
Democracy followed three years later, the same chorus of 
praise was repeated with emphasis. The common reader 
began by feeling that here was something he ought to 
read. Rather apprehensively, he took it up and to his 
surprise, found that a work of economics could be as 
absorbing as any novel: much more so than most. Every- 
body read, everybody talked about Trade Unionism . The 
authors could almost have said, if they had been so inclined, 
that, like Byron, they woke up one morning in 1894 to find 
themselves famous. They were become, at a bound, public 
characters, and public characters of serious significance. 

That works, so new both in approach and in handling; 
in subject matter and in style, should make a great impres- 
sion on their appearance, did not, of necessity, carry 
with it any assurance of wearing. But Trade Unionism 
and Industrial Democracy have worn well. Far from going 
out of circulation, or being superseded with the passage 
of time, they have not only come to be an indispensable 
part of the equipment of every serious student: they have 
had, throughout the years, a steadily growing ordinary 
reading public. Translated into seventeen languages, 
they are as readable, as intensely interesting to-day, as 
they were thirty years ago. Anyone who takes up either 
of them, now, will find it impossible to lay it down until 
every page has been perused. This is the more note- 
worthy in view of the fact that in 1894, the Webbs, in 
settling down to write about Trade Unions, were pro- 
posing to describe a part of life about which few persons 


knew anything, whereas in 1932, everybody knows, or 
thinks he knows, all about Trade Unions and Trade 
Unionism. Subsequent researches, the flood of recent 
knowledge of and interest in the topic, have not dispossessed 
their analysis or made their description out of date. They 
made their own, when these books came out, a certain 
section, and that a very important one, of history; and 
it is still primarily theirs. On these two books alone — 
to say nothing of the great series that was to follow them 
— they take their place among the creative describers ; those 
who, literally, so see an object that for the first time it comes 
into the effective view and effective possession of others. 

The History of Trade Unionism was issued in 1894: Industrial 
Democracy followed in 1897. The two are, in effect, one 
book. From many points of view the most important 
book of its kind produced in the second half of the nineteenth 
century, it is also, in the opinion of many, their master- 
piece. Here, the method they ever afterwards followed 
themselves, and have taught to a host of subsequent 
students all over the world, is first and most effectively 
exemplified in action. A vast mass of material is organised 
on an intellectual design whose authority is due, in no 
small part, to the fact that the detailed research behind 
it is, at once, matter of first-hand observation by the 
authors, and has been tried, tested and sifted by every 
conceivable test. Here is the scientific method in appli- 
cation to the observation and description of social facts, 
of which Beatrice Potter had dreamed. A gentle reminder 
to the critic that he had better know before judging comes, 
in its place, like a hammer stroke, driving in the rivet 
of acceptance of judgments based on immense accumu- 
lation of ordered facts, handled here with the ease of 
accomplished and familiar mastery. All this, the reader 
of the nineteen-thirties can appreciate and does appreciate, 
as he reads. It is harder for him to do justice to the 


revolutionary character and effect of the publication, 
forty years ago, of a work which so fully effected its trans- 
formation of opinion that its main points are now taken 
for granted. Actually, however, these volumes revealed 
a world, at the time regarded with dread largely because 
it was shrouded in darkness. They also revealed a person, 
till then as little known — the authentic British working- 
man. Contemporary history took on a new meaning; 
contemporary thought, and even contemporary feeling, 
were given a new direction. The method of approach 
to the writing of history was, henceforth, altered; so was 
its substance. Inheriting this alteration, we take it for 
granted. No English writers did as much to bring it 
about as did the Webbs. 

The intellectual origins of such a work are worth tracing. 
Thanks to My Apprenticeship , supplemented by an article 
written by Sidney in 1928, they can be traced. With 
his habitual frankness he says it seems to him to-day 

“a little strange that Trade Unionism, which came near to 
monopolising my thinking for years on end, did not reach me 
effectively till I was thirty. It had not place in the five or six 
years of study and discussion out of which the Fabian Society 
emerged. It is scarcely alluded to in Fabian Essays. . . . The 
same attitude of thought was typical of the whole past history 
of British Socialism. . . . Karl Marx himself . . . gave to 
Trade Unionism, in his view of the social organisation of the 
future, no greater importance than, right down to the last decade 
of the nineteenth century, the Fabians had done.” 

What Karl Marx, the Social Democratic Federation, 
and the Fabian intellectuals alike overlooked, Beatrice 
Potter perceived. In her mind, the idea of writing a full 
scale description of the Trade Union movement was 
definitely born in 1889; and for reasons that implied a 
clear, though of course not at that stage a full, under- 
standing of its significance. 


1889, year of the Match Girls’ Strike, of the Gasworkers’ 
Strike and of the great epic of the London Docks, of course 
brought the idea of Trade Unionism, and of what lies 
or might lie, behind it, in some degree home to many 
minds, in and out of London, previously hardly aware 
of the existence of such a thing. No such external incident 
directed her intelligence to question and enquire. She 
was deeply stirred by the great London Dock Strike, of 
course; but while it was going on, she was at Dundee, 
attending the meeting there of the annual Trades Union 
Congress. What took her thither was neither journalistic 
curiosity, nor any sudden awakening of interest in the 
mind of that mysterious being, the British workman, 
such as was stirring many to fear and some to hope in 
the autumn of 1889. She had a clear problem before her 
mind. Engaged at the time in writing her book on Con- 
sumers’ Co-operation, she had reached a notable con- 
clusion. Thinking, without knowing that she was so doing, 
very much on the lines then occupying the brain of her 
future partner, she perceived that the Co-operators’ nominal 
ideal of the 4 ‘self-governing workshop” w r as rooted in 
the commonly held theory, accepted by Karl Marx from 
David Ricardo, William Thompson and Thomas Hodgskin, 
that “Labour is the source of all value.” But this she 
found, 4 ‘did not work!” 

“What the Rochdale Pioneers had unwittingly discovered 
by the method of trial and error, was that the essential element 
in the successful conduct of production is the correspondence of 
the application of labour with some actually felt specific desire. 

. . . They were in fact Jevonians before Stanley Jevons. . . . 
To organise industry from the consumption end, and place it, 
from the start, upon the basis of ‘production for use’ instead of 
‘production for profit,’ under the control and direction, not of 
the workers as producers, but of themselves as consumers, was 
the outstanding discovery and practical achievement of the 
Rochdale Pioneers.” 


Nevertheless, John Mitchell, the “ business genius, who 
had built up the English Co-operative Wholesale Society,” 
was unable to perceive this; or to see that 

“consumers’ co-operation, unless tempered by the intervention 
of the political State through Factory Acts, and by due partici- 
pation in the management of each enterprise by powerful Trade 
Unions, might become an effective coadjutor of the existing 
capitalist employer in the exploitation of the worker.” 

She however did clearly see that “the existence of strong 
Trade Unions, enforcing standard rates and the normal 
working day,” was essential, even on the assumption 
that the Co-operative movement was comprehensively 
organised. The Co-operative movement in fact, like the 
majority of the contemporary world, was, as she puts it, 
simply “absent-minded” about the conditions of employ- 
ment, etc., of their staff. They were thus dropping a 
link of vast importance. 

She herself had begun to see the importance of Trade 
Unionism, though not yet in its full significance, nor all 
its connexions, at the time of her being called, in 
1888, to give evidence before the House of Lords Select 
Committee on Sweating. The appointment of this Com- 
mittee was, of course, a result of the publication of Charles 
Booth’s great Enquiry. When she appeared before them, 
one of the members put a question to her which was, in 
effect, a request to this remarkable young woman to write 
the Committee’s Report for them: — “How would you define 
the Sweating system?” he asked. Her reply came, pat. 

“An enquiry into the Sweating system is practically an enquiry 
into all labour employed in manufacturing which has escaped 
the regulation of the Factory Acts and Trade Unions.” 

Had this reply been accepted by the Committee — as it 
is now, in practice, accepted — machinery for dealing 
with sweated conditions could have been installed far 
earlier, and operated far more effectively than is even 


to-day the case. For she saw then, as she says in the review 
of the Report of the Committee she wrote for the Nineteenth 
Century in June 1890, that 

“If we wish to determine whether the presence of middle-men, 
machinery, and sub-division of labour are at once the cause and 
the essence of the evils of sweating, we must take a wider survey of 
the industrial facts than that afforded by the four volumes of 
evidence published by the Committee. We must use the comparative 
method : we must lay, side by side with the organisation of pro- 
duction in the sweated trades, the organisation of production in 
those industries admittedly free from the grosser evils of sweating. 
In short, to discover the constitutional disease, we must com- 
pare the diseased body with the relatively healthy organism.” 

Convinced therefore, as early as 1888, that “free com- 
petition” had got to be controlled, not “exceptionally or 
spasmodically” but universally, she saw Trade Unionism 
as working in the same direction as were Public Health 
legislation, Public Education, and the establishment of the 
Factory codes. 

This was in her mind, when she set to work on her own 
first book, on Co-operation; her first meeting with Sidney 
actually turned on an enquiry arising out of work on that book, 
which was to lead her to form the project of investigating 
and writing about Trade Unionism. He, at once, saw the 
point; very soon, he was co-operating in the project. 

In writing to her in May 1891 he says 

“Why not let me help you in the investigation into Trade 
Unionism? Whilst you interview officials and attend Trade 
Union meetings, I can rush through reports and Trade Union 
minutes at the Trade Union offices.” 

This suggestion, of course, came after many of those 
talks between them that counted so infinitely for pleasure 
in the lives of both, and became so frequent after their 
first meeting in 1890. She actually started the investiga- 
tion into Trade Unionism, before her Co-operative book was 
published, and worked at it with a sort of fierce intensity, in 



the holidays that her sisters’ interposition in the care of their 
sick father allowed her. Thus, September 1891 finds her 
attending the Trades Union Congress at Newcastle, and, 
after the “hurry-scurry of that week,” saying, in her Diary: 

“I have drudged in offices on records, or trudged to interview 
after interview. The work is stupendous and, as yet, the 
material does not shape itself. I do little but work and sleep and 
then work again. My fingers, cramped with hours of note- taking, 
threaten revolt, and my brain whirls with constitutions, execu- 
tives, general councils, delegate meetings, district delegates, 
branches, lodges, socials, with objections to piece-work and 
‘subbing,’ demarcation disputes — until all the organs of my 
body and my mind threaten to form into one federated Trade 
Union and strike against the despotism of the will.” 

In a few days, she writes to Sidney a letter interesting 
in itself, and significant as showing the driving impulse 
easily forgotten by the outsider because, in the insider, it is 
so strong and constant that it seldom comes to the surface : 

“I get so sick of these ugly details of time-work and piece- 
work, over-time, and shop-rent, and the squalid misfortunes 
of defaulting branch officers or heckling by unreasonable mem- 
bers. Who would choose to imprison the intellect in this smelly 
kitchen of social life if it were not for the ever-present ‘ thirty, 
per cent’ (Charles Booth’s statistics of those who were below the 
line of poverty), with the background of the terrible East End 
streets? The memory of the low, cunning, brutal faces of the 
loafers and cadgers who hang about the Mint haunts me when 
I feel inclined to put down the Trade Union Reports and take 
up a piece of good literature.” 

To this heroic wail, he at once replied 

“ You are not fit to write this big book alone; you would never 
get through it. When I really get to work on it, you will find 
me not only a help instead of a hindrance but also the indis- 
pensable help which will turn a good project into a big book.” 

So it was to prove. The book — for the two volumes are 
really one book — is not only big in its comprehensiveness 
and sweep; it is big in another sense. It was highly original 
in its subject matter. Here, their success tends to mask 


from us the scale and scope of their achievement. They 
have done their work so completely that nobody to-day 
dreams of writing the history of any epoch without building 
into his survey some account of the condition of the working 
class, and, if he is writing modern history, of working 
class organisations. 

Such, however, was not the case in the second half 
of the nineteenth century. When Mrs. Webb consulted 
W. E. H. Lecky as to what the working classes of England 
were doing and thinking in the first half-century after 
the Industrial Revolution, his reply “led me nowhere”; 
he told her in sum, that they were doing nothing in par- 
ticular: in effect, that they did not signify. When, in 
their own Preface to their History , they mildly remark that 

“The history of the general movement, to which we have con- 
fined ourselves here, will be found to be part of the political 
history of England,’ * 

they were not emitting a universally accepted platitude; 
very far from that. Nor did everybody, then, agree with, 
still less practise, the statement that follows — 

“In spite of all the pleas of modern historians for less history of 
the actions of governments, and more descriptions of the manners 
and customs of the governed, it remains true that history, how- 
ever it may relieve and enliven itself with descriptions of the 
manners and morals of the people, must, if it is to be history at 
all, follow the course of continuous organisations. The history 
of a perfectly democratic State would be at once the history of 
a government and of a people. The history of Trade Unionism 
is the history of a State within our State, and one so jealously 
democratic that to know it well is to know the English working 
man as no reader of middle-class histories can know him.” 

At this point, they came into sharp collision with then 
accepted opinion. There were, in the late ’nineties, plenty 
of people, some philanthropic, others merely enlightened, 
who were prepared to take an interest in, and feel a 
respect for, the individual working-man, and to strive, 


quite hard and earnestly, to improve his lot for him. 
Such people even went so far as .to welcome the presence 
of workmen in the House of Commons. It was another 
matter when they were asked to consider the notion of 
organised workmen, forming associations, whether industrial 
or political, to improve their own lot: possibly even alter 
the general arrangement of lots. On this issue the real 
controversy turned; it was to the education of minds on 
this crucial point that the Webbs made a contribution 
that has coloured the general outlook, and the outlook of 
statesmen, with positively transforming effect. They began 
this education with the very first sentence of their History. 

“A Trade Union, as we understand the term, is a continuous 
association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or 
improving the conditions of their working lives. This form of 
association, has, as we shall see, existed in England for over two 
centuries, and cannot be supposed to have sprung at once fully- 
developed into existence.” 

Very skilfully do they play here, upon the tendency of 
the English mind to think that anything that has, in fact, 
existed for a long time must be quite all right. Of course 
they reject the false analogy, later sought to be established, 
between the Medieval Gild and the self-governing associa- 
tion of workers: at the same time, they point out that, 
so long as industry was carried on mainly by small masters, 
the “ industrious apprentice” might reasonably hope, if 
not to marry his master’s daughter, at any rate to set up 
in business for himself. So, while 

“industrial oppression belongs to all ages, it is not until the 
changing conditions of industry had reduced to an infinitesimal 
chance the journeyman’s prospect of becoming himself a master, 
that we find the passage of ephemeral combinations into per- 
manent trade societies.” 

Through a detailed survey, based on contemporary docu- 
mentation, of the flourishing associations that did exist 


among tailors, clothiers, hatters, printers, weavers, hosiery 
workers and shipwrights, they show that, while it is his- 
torically correct to associate any general expansion of 
workmen’s combinations with the great changes in industry 
that massed them in factories, trade clubs would anyhow 
have been a feature of English industry. Clubs, however, 
of a wholly different character, representing as they did 
an industrial society 

“divided vertically, trade by trade, instead of horizontally 
between employers and wage-earners.” 

Modern Trade Unionism came into being with the 
acceptance by government of the new economic doctrine 
of free competition, which found its fullest expression in 
the legislation of 1799 an( l 1 800 expressly penalising all 
combinations. The word Trade Union docs not occur 
till well into the nineteenth century. 

“It is in leading articles of 1830-4 that we first come upon refer- 
ences to some great Power of Darkness vaguely described as 
‘The Trades Union’.” 

Here, the contemporary emphasis is on the the: The Trades 
Union was the ideal of the revolutionary period. In its 
ferment of ideas, Robert Owen of course played a leading 
part. Of Owen, and of the “jumble of Communist aims 
and ordinary Trade Union aspirations” which, as a 
mixed heritage of good and evil, he left behind him, a 
most vivid picture is given — 

“In short, the Socialism of Owen led him to propose a practical 
scheme which was not even Socialist ir, and which, if it could 
possibly have lx*en carried out, would have simply arbitrarily 
redistributed the capital of the country without altering or 
superseding the capitalist system in the least. 

“All this will l>e so obvious to those who comprehend our 
capitalist system that they will have difficulty in believing that 
it could have escaped so clever a man and so experienced and 
successful a capitalist as Owen. How far he made it a rule to 
deliberately shut his eyes to the difficulties that met him, from 
a burning conviction that any change was letter than leaving 



matters entirely alone, cannot be guessed; but it is quite certain 
that to a great extent he acted in perfect good faith, simply 
not knowing thoroughly what he was about. He had a boundless 
belief in the power of education to form character; and if any 
scheme promised just sufficient respite from poverty and degrada- 
tion to enable him and his disciples to educate one generation of 
the country’s children, he was ready to leave all economic con- 
sequences to be dealt with by ‘the New Moral World’ which 
that generation’s Owcnite schooling would have created. 
Doubtless he thought that ‘the Trades Union’ promised him 
this much; and besides, he did not foresee its economic con- 
sequences. He was disabled by that confident sciolism and 
prejudice which has led generations of Socialists to borrow from 
Adam Smith and the ‘classic’ economists the erroneous theory 
that Labour is by itself the creator of values, without going on 
to master that impregnable and more difficult law of economic 
rent which is the very’ corner-stone of collectivist economy. He 
took his economics from his friend William Thompson, who, 
like Hodgskin and Hodgskin’s illustrious disciple, Karl Marx, 
overlooked the law of rent in his calculations, and taught that all 
exchange values could be measured in terms of ‘labour time’ 
alone. Part of the Owcnite activity of the time actually resulted 
in the opening of Labour bazaars, in which the prices were 
fixed in minutes. The fact that the expenditure of labour 
required to bring articles of the same desirability to market 
varies enormously according to the natural differences in fer- 
tility of soil, distance to lx* traversed, proximity to good high- 
ways, waterways or ports, accessibility of water power or steam 
fuel, and a hundred other circumstances, including the organis- 
ing ability and executive dexterity of the producer, was left 
entirely out of account. Owen assumed that the labour of the 
miner and of the agricultural labourer would spontaneously 
exchange equitably at par of hours and minutes when the 
miners had received a monopoly of the Ixnvels of the country and 
the agricultural labourers of its skin. He did not even foresee 
that the Miners’ Union might be inclined to close its ranks 
against newcomers from the farm labourers, or that the Agricul- 
tural Union might refuse to cede sites for the Builders’ Union to 
work upon. In short, the difficult economic problem of the 
equitable sharing of the advantages of superior sites and oppor- 
tunities never so much as occurred to the enthusiastic Owenitc 
economists of this period .” 1 

'History of Tradt Unionism , pp. 14G-7. 


The magnificent hopes of 1829-42 ended, of course, in 
bitter disillusionment, but not without leaving ineradicable 
marks behind them. As Chartism dwindled, Trade 
Unionism, on much more modest lines, revived; the “new 
Spirit’’ led to the “new Model”: “the generous but imprac- 
ticable ‘universalism’ of the Owenite and Chartist organ- 
isations was replaced by the principle of the protection 
of the vested interests of the craftsman in his occupation.” 
This was, largely, the w'ork of that able group of remarkable 
men known as The Junta — of whom an unforgettable series 
of portraits are drawm: men of high personal character 
and exceptional business capacity, shrew r d, conciliatory, 
competent, disinterested, with “a large share of that 
official decorum which the English middle-class find so 
impressive.” Their steadiness carried the Trade Union 
movement through the strain and stress of the depression 
of the ’sixties and ’seventies; the time of the “Sheffield 
Outrages” and the Royal Commission of 1869-70, when 
such superb aid was lent to their cause by men like Tom 
Hughes and Frederic Harrison; and, when the General 
Election came in 1874, largely contributed to the defeat 
of the Gladstonian Government and the repeal, by the 
Tories, of his Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1871: 
an act as much resented in its day as was the Taff Vale 
Judgment a quarter of a century later. The price of this 
success was however that, while the leaders complacently 
accepted the dominant economic outlook of the day, the 
movement sank into a complacent quietism “crossed by 
an embittered sectionalism.” 

From this it was sharply roused by events and by the 
challenge of a series of young, new leaders, all personally 
known to the Webbs. In a chapter as lively as it is 
authoritative, they give an account of events within their 
own knowledge, including the shift of the centre of gravity 
in the Trade Union world from the craftsmen’s organ- 


isations to those of the labourer, of which the 1889 Dock 
Strike was the portent. To these chapters, the student 
of nineteenth century history will, despite all that has 
been written since, continue to go back. Nowhere else 
is the story told with anything like the same vigour, the 
same inside knowledge, the same power of detaching the 
lastingly significant, the same courage in criticism. In 
the final chapter, the Trade Union world of 1890 is sketched 
in. The toil that lies behind this chapter may well make 
the student of to-day bow his head in shame of his own 
faint-heartedness. In 1894, statistics of Trade Union 
membership, as of its distribution locally, had to be collected 
ad hoc , by the investigators; the Webbs had to, and in 
effect did, take their own Census. There were then, no 
official figures even of the numbers of manual workers. 
Of the toil involved, the tremendous Appendix, in the 
shape of a bibliography of over forty very closely printed 
pages, gives no adequate idea. 

In the concluding paragraph of this first volume, the 
authors state 

“We have endeavoured to confine ourselves to a statement of 
facts in such detail as is necessary for any understanding of the 
Trade Union movement. We have purposely refrained from 
summing up those facts, either in the course of the narrative or 
in a final chapter. Throughout this volume, we have avoided 
arguing whether the numerous conflicts and temporary successes 
of various bodies of organised workmen have or have not resulted 
in a permanent and progressive elevation of the Standard of Life, 
either of particular sections or of the whole class of wage-earners. 
Nor have we attempted to discuss the intricate problems pre- 
sented by the existence of a sectional organisation by trades in 
the midst of a community of non-Unionists. On these points 
we have, in the course of our investigations, formed definite 
opinions. To state and justify our views would involve a detailed 
analysis of the actual workings of Trade combinations.” 

To this “detailed analysis” the first half of Industrial 
Democracy , published three years later, is devoted. For it, 


the closing pages of Trade Unionism , in the original edition, had 
already laid the basis, since it is there suggested that not only 
does Trade Union history afford a rich field for economic 
and political research; it gives, in many directions, practical 
guidance to “the student of Democracy. 55 That student 

“is always deploring the narrow range of observation and 
experiment afforded by the brief histories of the few modern 
republican states. To him the Trade Union world affords the 
century-old experience of a thousand self-governing working- 
class communities, with unrestricted capacity for adaptation and 

In fact, 

“their prolonged trial of the best-known machinery of repre- 
sentative government, and their frequent invention of new forms 
and devices for the better administration of their little republics — 
all afforded unrivalled material for generalisations full of signi- 
ficance to the philosopher and the statesman .” 1 

In Industrial Democracy , when it came out in 1897, these 
promises were amply redeemed. Strange, now, to recall 
that when it was published, some critics “ridiculed the 
idea of attaching even so much importance to the work- 
men’s organisations as to write a book about them.” These 
critics were a defeated rearguard ; the general tone of 
the press was given by The Times when it described the 
book as “a permanent contribution to the sum of human 
knowledge” and commended it to the public as a “monu- 
ment of research and full of candour.” The Times further 
said it was “indispensable to every publicist and politician.” 
Indispensable it has remained. In spite of the water that 
has flowed under the bridges, between 1897 an d *920, 
Industrial Democracy stands, both as an analysis of Trade 
Union structure and function: and as containing in its 
latter pages both a classic defence of Democracy itself, 
and a classic exposition of the policy of the National 
Minimum, which runs, like a scarlet thread, through all 
1 History qf Trades Unionism , 1894 Edition, pp. 475-6. 


the Webbs* work. One very interesting point, which is 
also suggestive in its bearing on the judgment a reader 
may attempt to pass on the logical validity of their analysis, 
is that they express the view that the Trade Union in 
some form or other is a necessary and permanent element 
in any society, however highly evolved, and however far 
its evolution has carried it away from the Capitalist form 
we now know. On this view, at the time, they were 
criticised from two main, though contradictory angles. 
Orthodox economic and political opinion — and the two 
were never very clearly distinguished — disliked, and feared, 
the Trade Union as a “class” organisation. Socialist 
opinion, at any rate on the continent of Europe, was 
perturbed, because the view that the organisation of 
producers known as the Trade Union was destined to 
continue indefinitely, ran counter to “catastrophic ” Marxian 
philosophy. Their conclusion as to the probable permanence 
of the Trade Union seriously upset the leaders of the 
German Social Democratic Party. Indeed when Eduard 
Bernstein’s translation of Industrial Democracy appeared in 
Germany at the end of 1897, as it happened, accidentally, 
a few weeks before the publication of the English book, 
in December, the translator, although already a tried 
and trusted veteran in the German Social Democratic 
Party, was severely blamed for introducing such heretical 
ideas into the Socialist flock; indeed, he narrowly escaped 
dismissal from his party offices. That was in 1897. The 
critics took the orthodox Marxian view: a view the Webbs 
rejected. It remained the orthodox Marxian view: and 
in Russia when orthodox Marxianism triumphed in 1918 
Trade Unions were officially abolished. By 1930, they 
had been reinstated, with honours, as one of the main, 
and indispensable, pillars of the Soviet State. 

The first quality, to-day, that will strike any reader of 
either of these two volumes is their vitality. Later, the 


authors were to develop a style which militates against 
and impedes this quality: what one feels to be the typically 
dictated style. But these two books are written . True, 
in the Preface to The History of Trade Unionism , thanks are 
rendered to Bernard Shaw and Graham Wallas for ‘ 4 what- 
ever literary merits’’ it may have, but this, one may be 
sure, is but another example of the authors’ general gen- 
erosity. Phrasing and picture one is sure are their own: 
and they are alike admirable. The portraits of the early 
Trade Union Junta, as of Burns, Mann and their associates, 
fixed their features in the mind, lastingly; and these por- 
traits are but incidental high points in a general disposition 
of light and shade that is masterly. The authors possess 
their subject, and they possess it with a living interest 
that they know how to communicate. 

Vitality is the first quality, since its constant presence 
keeps the reader reading, and reading with concentrated 
attention. As he does so, and, still more markedly, when 
he re-reads, he becomes aware, and is in general retrospect 
increasingly aware, of another quality, even more dis- 
tinguished. This is organisation. The vast intractable 
material is not only dissected and made intelligible in 
its separate parts; it is attached to its fundamental bones. 
The structure and articulation of a world of diverse 
impulses, histories, forces and human beings is here, is 
alive, and is coherent. It lives not only in items, but as 
a whole. This result is achieved through an intellectual 
planning and an intellectual control of the first order. 
The events seem irresistibly, and by natural law, to order 
themselves into sequences, and those sequences to acquire 
significance. This result is secured partly through the 
authors’ sheer mastery of their material: partly through 
their remarkable self-restraint. Neither facts nor comments 
belonging properly to Volume II — the analytical volume 
— are permitted into Volume I, which is strictly historical 


and descriptive. There, the clear stream of narrative is 
never broken by argument, nor the steady progress of 
building up the picture delayed by moralising. The 
fruits of the judgment and the self-control exercised in 
Volume I are reaped in the later chapters of Volume II. 
There, the reader, literally possessed by facts so put before 
him that he feels them to be facts and nothing but facts, 
is lifted up above them, on the wings of an argument so 
sure and powerful that he is carried along, quite unresisting, 
and absolutely absorbed in the pleasant sense of confidence 
in the skill, authority, vision and reliability of his pilots. 
He has been given, in Trade Unionism , the background 
of history, before he is invited to take, or make, any judg- 
ments on the ideas of Trade Unionists. 

That the authors themselves had no “ point of view” they 
never maintained. There is a story which figures among the 
many, legendary and otherwise, that have gathered around 
the name of Webb, to the effect that Levine, the French 
economist, after a visit to 41, Grosvenor Road, reported; 

“ Yes, yes, they have got the facts. All the facts. But if any fact 
goes against their theories, so much the worse for the fact.” 

Reviewers, later, familiar with their practice of making 
notes on separate slips, at times suggested that some awkward 
slip had fallen beneath the table, and been conveniently 
left there. But against such criticisms must be set this: 
the general view they hold, whose possession they never 
denied, ran counter to the general view held by most of 
their critics, who tended to regard the latter, ipso facto , 
as “the facts.” The Webbs never made a secret of their 
own view; but no critic has succeeded in convicting them 
of any distortion in its interest. No one has accused them, 
on the other hand, of that dulness of approach involved 
in the attempt to apply the really impossible theory that 
history should be written without any “point of view.” 
If the student must absorb and dissect facts, 


“This docs not mean that the scientific observer ought to start 
with a mind free from preconceived ideas as to classification and 
sequences. If such a person existed, he would be able to make no 
observations at all. The student ought, on the contrary, to cherish 
all the hypotheses he can lay his hands on, however far-fetched they 
may seem. Indeed, he must be on his guard against being biased 
by authority. As an instrument for the discovery of new truth, 
the wildest suggestion of a crank or a fanatic, or the most casual 
conclusion of the practical man, may well prove more fertile than 
verified generalisations which have already yielded their full fruit. 
Almost any preconceived idea as to the connexion between pheno- 
mena will help the observer, if it is only sufficiently limited in its 
scope and definite in its expression to be capable of comparison 
with facts. What is dangerous is to have only a single hypotheses, 
for this inevitably biasses the selection of facts; or nothing but far- 
reaching theories as to ultimate causes and general results, for these 
cannot be tested by any facts that a single student can unravel. ,,x 

On “far-reaching theories as to ultimate causes and general 
results” they have waged war, in the name of scientific 
method, throughout the long years of their common 
effort. Their own point of view was not of this kind; 
and it was buttressed by and founded on the most laborious 
investigation, covering six years. 

Of this investigation, he said, many years later that 
it covered 

“certainly six years of ‘good hunting’ — of hunting of facts about 
the past in the ten or a dozen cities of the United Kingdom in 
which the Trade Union head offices were then situated; of 
hunting after the relations between these facts and the general 
course of law and history; and of hunting for the generalisations 
and the ideas that transformed the chaotic tangle into a philoso- 
phy. We found it a fascinating task, dry and fatiguing as it 
came to be in patches — like all long tasks! It proved well worth 
doing, even for Trade Unionism alone, but in the process we got 
new light on all the rest of British history, and we learned a lot 
about other factors in social organisation, and about the changes 
in their relations one to another through which society itself is 
transformed — in short, about Socialism itself.” 

They learned, through their investigation; they also taught. 
The publication of Trade Unionism and of Industrial Democracy 

1 Industrial Democracy , Preface to 1927 edition. 


not only revolutionised the subject matter of history; 
they revolutionised its method. They practically created, 
for English students, the method of research. They showed, 
in action, what research was; how much intensive work 
had to go behind published material; they also showed 
how it ought to be conducted. They set a standard; 
they forged an instrument; they gave an example. In 
the Preface to Industrial Democracy they give an account 
of their own method, reminding the student that it is 
his primary business to find out “not the ultimate answer 
to the practical problem that may have tempted him 
to the work” but what is “the actual structure and function 
of the organisation about which he is interested.” From 
the outset, therefore, he must adopt “a definite principle 
in his note-taking.” They suggest the separate sheet: 
and advise the putting of “a great deal of work into the 
completeness and mechanical perfection of note-taking, 
even if this involves, for the first few weeks of the enquiry, 
copying and re-copying his material.” Before beginning 
the actual investigation into facts, 

“it is well to read what has previously been written about the 
subject. . . . It is here that the voluminous proceedings of 
Royal Commissions and Select Committees find their real 
value. Their innumerable questions and answers seldom end in 
any theoretic judgment or practical conclusion of scientific 
value. To the investigator, however, they often prove a mine of 
unintentional suggestion and hypothesis, just because they are 
collections of samples without order and often without selection.” 

For actual investigation into facts, three good instruments 
of discovery are cited — the Document, Personal Observa- 
tion, and the Interview. What they say upon each of these 
is instructive: above all, what they say on the Interview. 

“The expert interviewer, like the bedside physician, agrees 
straight away with all the assumptions and generalisations of 
his patient, and uses his detective skill to sift, by tactful cross- 
examination the grains of fact from the bushels of sentiment, 


self-interest or theory. Hence though it is of the utmost import- 
ance to make friends with the head of any organisation, we have 
generally got much more actual information from his subordin- 
ates who are personally occupied with the facts in detail. But 
in no case can any interview be taken as conclusive evidence, 
even in matters of fact. ... It must never be forgotten that 
every man is biassed by his creed or his self-interest, his class 
or his views on what is socially expedient. If the investigator 
fails to detect this bias, it may be assumed that it coincides with 
his own! Consequently the fullest advantage of the interview 
can be obtained only at the later stages of an enquiry, when the 
student has so far progressed in his analysis that he knows exactly 
what to ask for.” 

The temptation to quote extensively from their description 
of the instruments is great: but their advice on this, if 
not yet universally followed, is universally accepted. The 
method of research actually employed is the Webb method. 
If the results are not up to the sample, they serve, in 
that, to show how remarkable were the gifts actually 
brought by the two pioneers to their chosen task. If 
scientific investigation into social and economic phenomena 
is to “ yield new scientific laws” there must, so they say 
in the preface to Industrial Democracy , be posited of the 

“The possession of a somewhat rare combination of insight and 
inventiveness, with the capacity for prolonged and intense 

This “rare combination” is realised, in their case. If insight 
strikes one as, pre-eminently, her gift, in inventiveness no one 
has ever surpassed him. For reasoning, prolonged and in- 
tense, both had a capacity sharpened by conscious develop- 
ment into a habit. These are not imitable gifts ; they are the 
gifts that have made their books on Trade Unionism standard 
works, and saved them from the doom of dulness that is apt to 
attach to books in that estimable category. In 1898, with 
these two volumes behind them, they could say that the “con- 
siderable work” had, indeed, been achieved. 



When W. T. Stead, in the early years of the new twentieth 
century, was moved to cry, “Since Mr. Chamberlain arose 
in Birmingham, there has been no man so like him as 
Mr. Sidney Webb,” he was not thinking of the great 
works on Trade Union history and function, nor of any 
other monument of learning and industry associated with 
the name of Webb. He was thinking of an immense and 
immensely practical accomplishment — the creation of that 
great network of civic services in London, which are now 
taken for granted by Londoners, few of whom realise 
how much of their daily comfort and convenience they 
owe to him, how much of the opportunities available to 
their children. 

Of the London of his childhood, he drew an impressive 
picture which registers the challenge its then conditions 
delivered to his youthful mind 

“It is impossible, with any brevity, to convey an intelligible 
notion of the deplorably low state of urban civilisation of the 
London of my childhood. Seventy years ago, the London of 
three millions of inhabitants had no metropolitan government. 
Such municipal jurisdiction as existed in the 120 square miles 
was scattered among a maze of parish vestries, the very existence 
of which was generally unknown, together with the ancient 
City Corporation, which took no heed of anything beyond the 
one square mile under the Lord Mayor. Needless to say, the 
administration was as primitive and barbarous as the jurisdic- 
tions were complicated and obscure. The slums : the all- 
pervading stenches: the alternating seas of mud and clouds of 
poisonous dust of the macadamised streets; the floating ‘blacks' 


that darkened the air; the scantiness and impurity of the water 
supply, with the Thames an open sewer: the recurring pestilences 
of enteric fever and small pox : the chronic tuberculosis and rheu- 
matism: the perpetual ill-health and appalling infantile mortality 
of the London of my childhood cannot be imagined to-day. 
There were not schools for even half the boys and girls, and such 
as there were (apart from a few ancient foundations that were 
out of my reach) were more rudimentary than would now be 
thought possible. The only ‘social services* that I remember 
were the national museums and picture galleries, the Royal Parks, 
and the blue clad police, who, a generation previously, had been 
forced on the Metropolis by Sir Robert Peel. The next quarter 
of a century saw much improvement under the Metropolitan 
Board of Works and the School Board; but of a London civic 
consciousness there was still next to nothing.” 1 

Such were the conditions he early determined to help to 
change. They were, with but small variation, the con- 
ditions still in existence when he became, in 1892, a member 
of London’s new County Council. The establishment of 
that Council he had hailed as an event of far-reaching 
importance, and immense potentialities. Until then, 
there was no single responsible body to look after London’s 
needs : with the result that so far as the life of its ordinary, 
and, above all, of its poorer citizens, went, it was far 
behind the more progressive municipalities of the Midlands 
and the North. Not poverty and degradation only, but 
dirt, insanitation, public disease and public ignorance 
had been revealed by the Booth Enquiry of 1886; that 
Enquiry powerfully stimulated, in minds like his, the 
sense of local as well as of national patriotism. It was 
intolerable that London should actually be what we now 
call a “backward area.” This civic pride and civic 
patriotism, was with him, a potent motive. In some 
ways, though he may look continental, he is an fond very 
British ; responds to motives and feelings that do not 
animate the typical “advanced” mind. This instinctive 
1 St. Martin's Review , 1928. 


n 3 

patriotism was to divide him, when the Boer War came, 
as when the Great War came, from many of his Socialist 
colleagues; it was an effective lever to bring him into 
active administrative work in London. No note is more 
definite, in the articles collected in that lively little volume, 
The London Programme , than this of pride in and for his 
native city. So, he says, 

‘‘the reform of London government . . . is no mere matter 
of cleaner streets and better drains. . . . The greatest need of 
our Metropolis is the growth among its citizens of a greater 
sense of common life. That ‘ Municipal Patriotism ’ which once 
marked the free cities of Italy, and which is already to be found 
in our provincial towns, can, perhaps, best be developed in 
London by a steady extension of the sphere of civic as compared 
with individual action.’ * 

The first elections for London’s new Council took place 
in the spring of 1889. He was out of England during the 
preceding months, visiting the United States. He had 
for two years saved up his leave at the Colonial Office, 
so as, now, to have a clear three months at his disposal. 
In the autumn of 1888, accordingly, he, with his friend 
and Fabian colleague, Edward Pease, sailed across the 
Atlantic on a slow boat. They played chess; and he 
read everything in the ship’s library, including purely 
nautical works. When they got to America, he saw a 
great deal, and established many contacts in New York, 
Chicago, Cleveland and elsewhere. But he did not get 
home until the opening of 1889, and then, according to 
himself, “took no part in the election.” “No part” seems 
to be a slight exaggeration on the side of humility; as 
a matter of fact, he admits that, so soon as he got back 
to London, he did “something that turned out to be 
important.” In January 1889, he got the Fabian Society 
to “importune” (his own word) all candidates to commit 
themselves to reforms in London government along the 


lines of Municipal Socialism. Some of them did. A 
Progressive majority of a rather vague and diverse kind 
was returned, to the surprise of everybody — but the Fabians. 
So far so good. The Progressives set to work; but their 
ideas turned out, in action, to be bounded by securing 
purity and efficiency of administration — good enough 
things in themselves, but by no means sufficient, least of 
all to meet the actual conditions in London. Big changes 
were required in more than administration. Take one 
small point — the water supply. Down to 1893, the supply 
of water for London was in private hands. It cost under 
£700,000 a year to supply London with water: but London 
had to pay more than £1,700,000 for the water so supplied. 
The water, too, was often of doubtful quality; the supply 
was partial and irregular ; many poor streets had to depend 
on a distant and insufficient tap. Baths, even in private 
houses, were a rare luxury: public baths were unknown. 
The result of this lack of the most elementary necessity 
of sanitation was the prevalence both of disease and of 
noxious smells. But no action was taken with regard 
to this by the first Council ; and this was only one of many 
crying and immediate evils. 

“We accordingly set ourselves, in the Fabian Society, to work 
out, in the ensuing three years, a detailed programme of admin- 
istrative reforms, to be made the basis of a consolidated Progres- 
sive Party, which should ignore the political differences between 
Liberals and Conservatives and appeal for the support of all good 

Of this effort, he was the life and soul. Facts for Londoners , 
a booklet on which he “spent some months in 1889,” 
published at sixpence, told Londoners, for the first time, 
all about their actual and possible municipal services. 
In the Speaker , then a lively Liberal weekly, run by the 
group which also compiled Essays in Liberalism , including 
H. W. Massingham, J. L. Hammond, J. A. Simon, Hilaire 


ri 5 

Belloc, F. W. Hirst and C. F. G. Masterman, he wrote 
a long series of anonymous articles, “ describing, with 
such fervour and such eloquence as 1 could command, 
what these services might be made.” The articles produced 
a great effect; in 1891, they were reprinted in a book, 
published in Swan Sonnenschein’s Social Science Series , 
entitled The London Programme . In the Preface, the author 
modestly states — 

“The following pages are not presented as a contribution either 
to science or literature. They aim at nothing more pretentious 
than describing, in language easily read and understood, the 
more important of those reforms in the administration of the 
Metropolis which are often known as ‘The London Programme.’ 
The present exposition of that programme is in no sense authori- 
tative, and the writer has no other warrant for his task than a 
lifelong acquaintance with London, and a very real and deep 
affection for his native city.” 

At the close he says 

“We should ‘municipalise’ our Metropolis, not only in order to 
improve its administration, but as the best means of developing 
the character of its citizens.” 

Nearly a dozen leaflets, also of his authorship, were 
in 1891 published by the Fabian Society' and 

“the free distribution of this incendiary literature went a long 
way to the construction of a municipal programme. This was 
clinched, as the second election approached, by the organised 
presentation to each of the candidates, by scores and sometimes 
hundreds of his own electors, of signed ‘ Questions for London 
County Councillors,’ to which the elector demanded written 
replies, intimating that only the candidates giving favourable 
answers would receive his vote. The device was then a novelty; 
and it succeeded, not only in forcing a whole series of reforms 
on the attention of the candidates, but also in convincing them 
that these were the reforms that London required. By articles 
in the Press and by incessant lectures in the Radical Clubs, we 
had seen to it that these particular ideas were ‘in the air.’ When 
the L.C.C. election of 1892 produced a large majority of Coun- 


cillors definitely united as a Progressive Party, this Party 
found itself equipped — perhaps it never understood quite how — 
with a programme that was as far removed from the political 
conceptions of the Liberal Party leaders of the time as it was 
from the Individualism of the Manchester School.” 

In this second, 1892, L.C.C. Election, he was not merely the 
organiser of victory : he was himself a candidate. He offered 
himself as a Progressive candidate to Deptford — then a 

‘'mixed district of villa residents and manual wage-earners and 
strongly held for Parliament by a Conservative — a district in 
which I knew only one person. It was then I studied the tech- 
nique of electioneering, with at least this much success that I 
won the seat by a large majority and kept it at five subsequent 
elections; and also brought in a timorous and elderly Progressive 
colleague, whom my proceedings and projects had, I fear, 
terrified, and who was presently succeeded by an able young 
Fabian, the late R. C. Phillimore.” 

Actually, in 1892, he was returned at the head of the 
poll with 4,088 votes: his colleague receiving 2,503. He 
was, in fact, as his friend Stephen Sanders puts it “the 
consummate electioneerer.” Far from concealing his 
Socialist opinions, he here, as always, most frankly stated 
them, as if, in fact, such were the only rational opinions: 
frankly, but never aggressively. Mr. Sanders, reminiscing 
about Deptford, says that 

“his tact, his powers of persuasion, his toleration of other people’s 
views, his evident disinterestedness, and the absence from his 
speeches of any personal attacks upon his opponents, together 
with his complete mastery of the issues of the contest and the 
ease with which he can deal with any question or questioner, 
secured for him support from most unexpected quarters ” ; 

He tells a story which makes this clear, in most enter- 
taining fashion: 

“No one is less like a ‘sportsman’ either in habit or in appear- 
ance than Sidney Webb, who states that his one recreation is 
walking. Yet, at one London County Council election, when 
some absurd issue was raised about a threatened restriction of 



‘sport* by the Council, a body with a name something like ‘The 
Sportsmen's League,' and with strong Conservative tendencies, 
waited upon him to hear his views on this momentous subject. 
He received the deputation with his usual affability, listened 
to them with becoming gravity, and then gave them an address 
on ‘Sport* which must have aroused their enthusiasm for his 
candidature, for, the next day, every public-house in Deptford 
contained a bill appealing to the electors to ‘Vote for Webb, the 
British sportsman ” 1 

They did: they went on returning him, through six succes- 
sive elections. 

Of his eighteen years’ membership, his own account 
is that it was “a somewhat strenuous, occasionally an 
exciting and, on the whole, a joyous episode.” But it 
is no use going to his own account for any description 
of “how he did it.” “More important than my own 
personal experience is the achievement of the Council” — 
that is how he, in the very next sentence, goes on. No 
suggestion of quorum pars magna fui , even when he con- 
tinues: “The special note of the Council’s work during 
the next fifteen years was its perpetual attempt to provide 
for London, in all departments, not only the best but also 
the utmost that Municipal Collectivism could secure” — 
in other words, to carry out the ‘London Programme.’ 
This was accomplished through a Progressive majority 
which was certainly not Socialist, but was, in effect, 
thoroughly permeated and most skilfully led, almost 
without its knowing it. He never drove: he infused. 

Civic pride, administrative efficiency — from these notes 
he, and the colleagues who worked with him, extracted 
such appealing music that, over a very wide area of the 
local government of London, and following London’s 
example, of the entire country, collective provision for 
public needs was instituted over an extensive field of 
public need, without more than a very occasional battle- 

1 Book of the Labour Party. 


royal over theory. He did not, on the Council, talk about 
Municipalisation or Municipal Socialism, but, during his 
active period as a member of it, he got the foundations 
so truly laid that there was no removing them. Adoptive 
Acts, instead of lying in the pigeon holes, were brought 
out and put into operation with regard to Health and 
Housing, the regulation of Docks and Markets, the pro- 
vision of Parks and Open Spaces. Through inspection, 
regulation, and control, the standard of decency and 
comfort of the Londoner was lifted. The supply of water 
was brought under public control, as a first step to its 
complete transference to public supply. The regulation 
of gas, the control of electricity, the provision of libraries, 
parks, trams, slaughter-houses, wash-houses and playing 
fields; the control over docks; the clearance of slums and 
erection of houses — these things came bit by bit, as part 
of an efficiency programme, and of a campaign for public 
health and sanitation carried through patiently, and 
without unnecessary advertisement of the controlling 
purpose behind the different parts of the work, each good, 
even irresistibly and obviously necessary in itself. Sidney 
Webb, as in his Fabian days, was the brains and the 
driving force behind the whole steady transformation of 
London into the place as which we know it. 

It was not got through, this collectivisation, without 
fighting and finesse. All his tact, resourcefulness and 
persistence were required and were given to the task. 
It was accomplished at a period when, for the most part, 
Conservative Ministries were in office. They grumbled. 
So did the Conservative representatives on the Council, 
and the wealthy ratepayers of the City and West End. 
Yet they dared not attack the policy root and branch. 
Social Reform was in the air : was not Sir William Harcourt 
even saying “we are all Socialists now”? All they could, 
and did say was that the Council was “overdoing it” 



by way of reform. Must it go so fast? They fumed; 
but the work went on, and just as fast as Webb could 
make it go. Fast, but without needlessly exasperating 

Reports to the whole Council would come up, from 
this Committee and from that; reports that pushed the 
wedge of Collectivism in, each one a bit further. The 
Chairman would mutter, “The Webb mixture, as before.” 
But a smile would accompany the mutter. The Report 
was, invariably, workmanlike; its proposals practical, and 
such as would redound to the credit of the Council. The 
guiding spirit never advertised itself. The draftsman 
never rubbed things in. Things got done; that was what 
he cared about. 

He was on more than one committee, and as Edward 
Pease says, speaking from long familiarity with his ways, 
“Whenever Webb is on a committee, it may be assumed, 
in default of positive evidence to the contrary, that the 
Report is his work.” He was also largely responsible 
for the shaping of the internal organisation of the Council’s 
work: for its Standing Orders and for the admirable form 
and fulness of its Agenda — in a word, for the forging of 
an efficient instrument of administration. He took a 
directing part in this, as in the steady extension and 
transformation of London Government into a great 
organ of collective provision, and, for these services, all 
Londoners owe him gratitude. But, important as his work 
in these spheres during his eighteen years membership 
from 1892 to 1910, his greatest administrative accomplish- 
ment, and the piece of work which W. T. Stead had 
predominantly in mind, was his creation for London of 
an educational system. 

In no respect did London lag more disastrously behind 
than in this. For no issue did Webb feel more passionately 
than this: on none was his knowledge greater or more 


intimate. Passion may seem an odd word to use in con- 
nexion with him, but to his feelings about education, 
no other is applicable. It is one of the very few topics 
on which he has ever been known to get heated. Normally, 
of course, his controversial manner is wholly one of sweet 
reasonableness; he wins his way by the most scrupulous 
fairness both in stating his own case, and in meeting that 
of his opponent; he seldom raises his soft, slightly lisping 
voice; he is never betrayed into any outward sign of 
strong partisanship, although, at times, he can say the 
hardest things in the gentlest way; so hard and sharp that 
it is only when they, as it were, echo in the mind, that 
their real bite is appreciated. Yet he revealed an excite- 
ment that, although almost perfectly controlled, was 
nevertheless perceptible to his audience, when, in 1909, 
he was addressing the Association of Technical Institutes 
on the question of compulsory attendance at some form 
or other of Continuation School. To that, as a graft on 
the existing system, under which thirty to forty per cent 
of children left school to enter some blind-alley occupation, 
he expressed himself as unalterably opposed. “The 
proper occupation of youth up to twenty-one is in education 
and instruction. ” This statement, at question time, 
roused, from various quarters, a number of the usual 
enquiries, as to how, then, was the community, to get 
its hewers of wood and drawers of water? Must not some 
people go to work early for our convenience. In his reply 
he was so angry as to be guilty of exclamatory, verbless 

“I may be a dreamer of dreams, but I thought that the doctrine 
that education was only for a part of the nation was buried a 
hundred years ago: it certainly does not consort with twentieth 
century ideas to imagine that there is to be a class of hewers of 
wood and drawers of water. I want no class of hewers of wood 
and drawers of water: no class destined to remain there, and 
prevented from rising, because we do not provide for it. I cannot 


12 1 

believe that we are only to provide the means of instruction for 
a certain limited number of people, who we think will rise, 
while the rest are to toil for our convenience. For our con- 
venience! Who is to hew? Who is to deliver our bread? Our 
convenience ! Our comfort ! Our comfort is to stand in the way 
of enabling these people, our fellow-citizens, to attain anything 
better than being mere hewers of wood and drawers of water ! 
I must apologise for having been betrayed into a little heat, but 
I do object to the notion that, for our convenience, we are to 
keep people as hewers of wood and drawers of water.” 

The occasion was a revealing one, to many who were 
there. So easy is it to believe that self-control, a calm 
exterior, a perfect consideration for others, an unvarying 
amiability of manner, imply a want of ardour or intensity 
of concern. If the test of an authentic passion be the accom- 
plishment of some valid service towards its object, however, 
what he did for education, both school and university, in 
London, stands as proof of passion of the most enduring kind. 

Reading The London Programme , one notes, with some 
surprise, that the fact-packed survey of London as it was 
in the ’nineties, and that picture of London it was to be, 
contains no mention of education. The ideal of municipal 
activity set out, was, thanks to him, in London largely to be 
realised. By its schools and schooling, he was to do at least 
as well. If he says nothing about it in this place, the reason 
of course is that, at the time, primary education was outside 
the scope of the Council and assigned to another body — 
the School Board: and, although the Council was the 
authority for technical and higher education, it had made, 
until he got on to it, little use of its powers. To such separa- 
tion and division of authorities, he was opposed: but his 
tactic for reform was neither to attack the School Board 
nor assail, directly, the system of separation. It was, rather, 
so skilfully to extend, aggrandise, and make efficient the 
Council’s department, for which he, as Chairman of its 
so-called Technical Education Board, was mainly respon- 


sible, that the case for handing control over education 
as a whole to the Council became irresistible. 

His own brief and dry account of the matter is illumin- 
ating, in its way. 

“My own work on the Council was primarily concerned with 
education. We pressed the Council to exercise its powers under 
the Technical Instruction Acts, and I induced a friendly Board of 
Education so to define the Council’s scope as to include as tech- 
nical education the teaching of every conceivable subject (other 
than ancient Greek and theology) elsewhere than in a public 
elementary school. This made the Council, to the astonishment 
of some of its own members and of the School Board, the 
authority for secondary and technical education in London. 
I suppose we must have done the job in style, as it was certainly 
the Council's work in this sphere that largely contributed, in 
1902-3, to the transfer to the County and Borough Council of 
all the functions of the School Boards, as well as to a vast expan- 
sion of public educational enterprise.” 

It was at this “vast expansion of public educational enter- 
prise” that he was aiming, from the start: what his School 
Board associates found hard to forgive him, at the time, was 
the fact that the supreme efficiency of his work on the 
Technical Education Board, was the main lever by means of 
which the unification of educational authority, through which 
alone that expansion could be secured, was carried through: 
and carried through by the elimination of the School Boards. 

His first step was characteristic. He got a comprehensive 
Survey of technical education in London made, by a 
brilliant young civil servant, Hubert Llewelyn Smith; a 
survey which included everything but primary education. 
Equipped with this exact and detailed knowledge of what 
provision for non-primary education existed, he set to work 
to level up its standard, and, so far as possible, bring it 
under the effective control of his Board. The Board, under 
his Chairmanship, knew what institutions, of all kinds, there 
were, and what they were like: a position of immense 
strength, and one which he knew how to use to the full. 



Only his associates of that day know how much hard work, 
how much ingenuity and resource, how much tact and 
patience, went to the achievement he modestly describes 
in the paragraph quoted above. At the end of his time as 
Chairman of the Technical Education Board, London 
actually had a larger proportion of its children in secondary 
schools of some sort or other than had either Paris or Berlin. 
Of these schools, some eighty-five were, by 1904, publicly 
managed, in fairly good buildings, and tolerably well- 
equipped, though weak in staffing and above all, as regards 
the teachers' salary scales. 44 About half the publicly man- 
aged schools," so he wrote in London Education (1904), 

4 4 are sufficiently well off to be independent of its (the 
Council's) aid. The other half, including practically all 
those in need of assistance, have already shown by their 
cordial co-operation with the Technical Education Board 
their willingness to come into line." His technique for 
bringing them either up to standard, or into line, was of 
amazing dexterity and infinite resourcefulness. For instance, 
in the very early days, he brought up to the full Council, 
from the Board, proposals for a scheme of free scholarships 
to enable bright boys and girls to go on with their education 
after they had finished with the primary school at thirteen 
or fourteen. On the desirability of this, the case was over- 
whelming: the Progressives rallied to a man; the Council 
voted for scholarships, on a practically unlimited scale. 
Everyone felt happy; felt that a good day's work had been 
done. Only on the face of the Chairman of the Technical 
Education Board was there a slight shadow. 4 4 The resolu- 
tion is all right," he said. 44 The Council has done the right 
thing. But, unluckily, there aren’t any schools." Result — 
the schools for the scholarship children to go to had to be 
provided by the Council. Actually, there were at the time 
so few secondary schools that only a tiny fraction of the 
children affected by the resolution the Council had so joy- 


ously passed could be accommodated in them. He, of 
course, knew this : and he meant the schools to be provided. 
He knew, too, that had he begun by demanding the money 
to create the schools, he would never have got it. As it 
was, he did get it, and the Board went ahead. Again, he 
worked tirelessly to bring such schools as existed up to a 
satisfactory standard. A school would, for instance, be given 
one year, a small grant for laboratory equipment, sewing 
machines or what not; next year, when the renewal of 
the grant was applied for, a bland enquiry, terrifying in 
its accurate and detailed familiarity with the facts — would 
be put, as to cloak-room accommodation, teachers’ pay, or 
some other point of weakness. So “cordial co-operation” 
meant a steady, irresistible advance towards control. 

If, however, it was possible for the Technical Board to 
bring its department up to a reasonably high level of 
efficiency, the position in relation to elementary education 
was vastly different. It was the condition of the elementary 
schools of London that mainly impelled his mind towards 
the working out of a comprehensive plan of reform. In 
any such plan the keynote was bound to be co-ordination 
under a single authority. Not co-ordination for its own sake, 
still less co-ordination for the sake of uniformity — co-ordin- 
ation for the sake of education. Above all, he wanted to 
lift the entire conception of education out of the ragged 
school, or, to use his phrase “rescue work,” standpoint; the 
standpoint, then still so common, from which both School 
Board and Technical Education Board were but agencies for 
the “education of the poor” — the emphasis being on poor. 

The actual position was clearly set out by him in 1903 
in a series of articles in The Nineteenth Century , afterwards 
reprinted in a small book, London Education . 

“In spite of an expenditure of nearly four millions of public 
money, and a large but unknown amount of private money, Lon- 
don education falls short of decent efficiency at many points. 



It fails alike at the bottom and at the top — we succeed neither in 
maintaining a high standard of common schooling for all 
London’s children, whatever their poverty or the creed of their 
parents; nor yet in disseminating culture, developing reasoning 
power, or promoting original research.” 

The position at the bottom was truly alarming — 

“ Putting together what little is really known of all the thousand 
public elementary schools of London, including both Board and 
voluntary, there are competent observers who declare that 
nearly half of them containing about a quarter of the children, 
would probably be condemned as inefficient, either in respect of 
buildings or of sanitation, of staffing or equipment, of curriculum 
or real success in child- training, by a Swiss, a Danish, a Saxon, 
a Prussian, or a Massachusetts school inspector. As for the 
standard of education ... in the absence of a common 
national inspection, no one could answer.” 

It was perfectly true, and in his articles he states quite frankly, 
that the level of the voluntary schools was lower than that of 
the Board Schools, poor as that in many cases still was, and 
deplorable as the general level of absenteeism. What propor- 
tion bad Board Schools bore to the whole, or how bad were 
the worst, only the School Board Inspectors knew; so far as 
the two-sevenths of children educated in voluntary schools 

“ There is no resisting the inference that nearly all the hundred 
Roman Catholic Schools and probably three-hundred of the 
three-hundred and thirty-one Church Schools — having in the 
aggregate more than 150,000 children — are, so far as secular 
education is concerned, calamitously behindhand.” 

To have to pass this considered judgment on the average 
level of London education, came, so he says, as a shock of 
surprise to him. He does not say precisely when he received 
this shock; but, the facts once clear, his mind set to work 
upon them, with remarkable results. 

He rejected the view taken at the time by most of his 
Progressive friends that, since the voluntary schools were 
the worst, and since the Anglican, and still more the 


Roman Catholic, managers found it impossible to collect 
voluntarily the heavy sums required to make their schools 
fit for twentieth century children, the way out was to “ crush 
them out of existence, and have one uniform Board School 
system, with undenominational Christian teaching.” His 
rejection of this is significant. The common, uninformed 
view of the natural Webb reaction to such a problem would 
be that he would be all for uniformity, for a neat scheme 
and for the elimination of nonsense, and possibly pernicious 
nonsense at that, like Catholic or Anglican or Jewish 
denominational instruction. Not at all. Genuinely impas- 
sioned for education, genuinely tolerant of views different 
from his own, what he was concerned to secure was the 
utmost variety and flexibility in educational system, con- 
sistent with the attainment of a reasonably high standard. 
He also believed strongly in and desired freedom for all 
parents, however poor they might be, in regard to an item 
which seemed to them of cardinal importance, whatever 
it might seem to him. He was against intolerance, under 
whatever name it might masquerade: against the cut- 
and-dried imposition of certain views, whatever they might 
be. As he wrote in The Nineteenth Century , in 1901, 

“One party has backed denominational schools, and has only 
grudgingly admitted the need for Board Schools. The other 
party, with at least equal intolerance, has backed Board Schools, 
and only grudgingly allowed Denominational Schools to exist. 
The result of this sectarian and unsectarian narrowness, and of 
the incapacity of the Education Department itself, is that after 
a whole generation of nominal compulsion, we are still only at 
the beginning of the task. Over at least a third of England, the 
schools, the training of the teachers, the scope and content of the 
curriculum, and even the attendance of the children are so in- 
ferior as to amount to a national scandal, whilst only in the 
picked samples of a few towns do we rise to the common level of 

He faced the denominational issue (although possibly, at 
the time, he underrated the intensity of feeling it engendered) 



when thinking out plans for reform of London education, 
and rejected the notion of crushing the denominational 
schools out of existence. 

“I had seen in the United States and Victoria (Australia) 
the consequences of such action; I did not like the policy of 
crushing out minorities. I thought the imposition of ‘un- 
denominational Christianity 9 as unfair to the Jews, Unitarians, 
and Secularists, as the imposition of the Anglican Church Cate- 
chism on Roman Catholics and Nonconformists, or of the 
Roman Catholic formularies on Protestants. Moreover, I knew 
that the result would not be the closing of the Roman Catholic 
schools, but (as in the United States) their continuance entirely 
at private cost at a still lower level of efficiency, which would be 
calamitous for the very large and perhaps growing number of 
children who would resort to them. Above all, I wanted to 
preserve variety in education, rather than an officially prescribed 
uniformity — variety in methods of teaching, variety in the sub- 
jects taught, and variety in ‘atmospheres.’ I wanted to leave the 
door open to new and unthought of experiments in schools.” 

“For all these reasons,” he goes on, 

“when the Conservative Government in 1902 proposed to find 
out of the rates and government grants the salaries of the teachers 
in these Anglican and Roman Catholic Schools, and to put 
these, like all other public elementary schools, under the admin- 
istration of the County and Borough Councils, I gave this 
measure my hearty support, and have never since regretted my 

“Hearty support” is, as a matter of historic fact, not quite 
the right description for his action. It is the truth, but 
by no means the whole truth. Politically, of course, the 
Balfour Government is the author of the Acts of 1902 and 
1903; but their “onlie begetter” is the author of Fabian 
Tract No. 106, — The Education Muddle and the Way Out . 
On its title-page, this Tract bears no name. In its first 
form, it was not drafted by Sidney Webb: indeed, he ob- 
jected to the original draft. Thereupon it was remitted 
to him to re-draft; as published in 1901 it was his handi- 
work. Before it actually appeared in this form, Sir John 


Gorst, then President of the Board of Education, sent down 
to the Fabian Offices, and asked to be supplied with fifteen 
galley pulls of Webb’s Tract No. 106 for the instruction of 
the Cabinet. So far as Gorst himself went, and so far as 
Mr. Balfour, the Prime Minister went, their instruction 
had been carried through some time before this, at 41, 
Grosvenor Road. 

Permeation, at Grosvenor Road, had not only been 
applied to members and supporters of the Government. 
It had been going on, assiduously and effectively, over a 
wide range. Balfour, at the time, was almost an intimate 
there: and he and Haldane saw pretty much eye to eye 
with one another, and with Webb. So hopeful were they, 
indeed, that the intention was to make the measure an 
agreed one; of this, lively hopes had been entertained at 
one time, by the friends of education. Among the Liberals, 
not R. B. Haldane only, but H. H. Asquith, Edward Grey, 
and even Lord Rosebery were, at this stage, constant 
visitors at Grosvenor Road. Lord Rosebery had 
been the first Chairman of the Council, and had a strong 
pride in his child : of him, about the turn of the century, 
the Webbs had great expectations. The notion of “edu- 
cating an Imperial race” appealed, powerfully, to his lively 
imagination, as to those of his section of the Liberal party. 

Here however, as with the Progressives on the Council, 
and Liberals throughout the country in general, bitter 
disappointment awaited those who insisted on looking at 
the education of the children from an educational point of 
view. No sooner were the schools mentioned than, in the 
country as a whole, and in London in particular, the tides 
of sectarian prejudice surged up, menacing. The Liberals, 
at this date, were still first and foremost a Nonconformist 
party. The Nonconformist conscience had brought Glad- 
stone to heel, in the Parnell Case : it now brought Rosebery 
and his friends to heel against the “gift of public money 



to sectarian schools.” Lord Rosebery, under Webb’s 
inspiration, made a great speech at Colchester in favour of 
education and nothing but education. At once, the thunder 
began to rumble. A few weeks later, at a mass meeting 
in St. James’ Hall, London, with all the Liberal stalwarts 
on the platform, he not only recanted: he armed himself 
with a tomahawk against the Balfour Education Bill, and 
refused to see the “vast expansion of public educational 
enterprise” except through the glass of party and religious 
passion. Sidney Webb was present at this meeting: as he 
came away from it, he is said to have done a thing he is 
hardly ever known to do — used strong language. “What 
do you think of Lord Rosebery now?” asked his friend 
F. W. Galton. “He’s a bloody broken reed,” was the 
succinct reply. 

Nowadays, when the 1902-3 Acts are looked at strictly 
from the educational view, there are probably few who do 
not see in them the necessary practical approach to a 
genuinely national educational system. As such, he, as 
their real author, did a very good, but, as it turned out, 
a very hard piece of work. The controversy broke up his 
happy association, on the Council, with the Progressive 
party, and made him bitter enemies on the School Boards. 
On the Council, he found himself separated, on this issue, 
from all his Progressive allies: indeed, the Education Act 
controversy did worse than that — it separated him, for 
the time, from one of his oldest and most intimate friends, 
Graham Wallas. Wallas was a member, and a very keen 
member, of the London School Board, which the Act of 
1903 abolished. Division from him was painful. No 
personal difficulties, however, prevented Webb from going 
straight ahead on the course he saw to be right: if the 
Education Acts had to be worked, so far as the Council 
was concerned, mainly with Conservative support, that was 
disagreeable, but — they had got to be worked. So the book 


— London Education — he published in 1904 is not only a 
defence of the Acts, on their merits: it is a most cogent 
and earnest plea for their fair and unfettered working. He 
declares that, now, 

4 'Public education has, insensibly, come to be regarded not as a 
matter of philanthropy, undertaken for the sake of the individual 
children benefited, but as a matter of national concern, under- 
taken in the interest of the community as a whole. It is this 
notion which has , almost without the notice of the controversialists , been 
embodied in the Acts of 1902-3.” 

Now, under the powers assigned to it by those Acts, the 
London County Council is “ called upon to endow London 
with a complete educational system.” 

Loyally, through all the difficulties that met him on the 
Council from 1903 on — and particularly after 1906, when 
most of the leading Progressives won seats in the House of 
Commons, and after the 1907 Council elections, when the 
Conservatives, under the name of Municipal Reformers, 
captured a majority there — he continued his work towards 
a “complete educational system.” It is impossible to 
exaggerate what Londoners owe him, under that head. 
His work was on the Council, and also outside it: for, 
in addition to creating the Acts of 1902-3, he is the architect 
of London’s University. 

On this, his closest association was with R. B. Haldane. 
It was over London University that these two, with Balfour, 
first put their heads together. Up to 1898, London Univer- 
sity was a mere external examination board. As such, the 
two teaching colleges, King’s and University, wanted to 
sweep it altogether away: they desired to see a new, pro- 
fessionally-run University established, with no extra-mural 
examiners. Politically, this proposal, whatever its intrinsic 
merits, was at the time, entirely impracticable. Indeed, 
Haldane was driven to resign his membership of the 
Governing Body of University College on the point: and 



it was this that brought him to seek counsel of Webb with 
a view to devising some practicable method of reaching 
the desired end. At an early conversation between the 
two friends on this point, Haldane is said to have asked 
Webb: 4 ‘What is your idea of a University?” He smiled. 
“I haven’t any idea of a University. Let’s sit down and 
see what we can make of it. Here are the facts. . . . What 
we want, it seems to me, is an Act enlarging the existing 
University so as to give it a powerful teaching side. . . . 
That will grow. In the end, it will, by sheer quality of 
performance, absorb the purely examination side.” As 
Lord Haldane puts it in his Autobiography : 

“ Sidney Webb and I took counsel together. He was a very 
practical as well as a very energetic man. We laid siege to the 
citadel. We went round to person after person who was promi- 
nent in the administration of the existing University. Some list- 
ened, but others would not do so and even refused to see us. 
In the end, we worked out what was in substance the scheme 
of the London University Act of 1898. The scheme was far from 
being an ideal one. It provided by way of compromise for a 
Senate which was too large to be a really efficient supreme 
governing body for the new composite University, and it had 
other shortcomings of which we were well aware. But . . . 
we saw that the scheme thus fashioned was the utmost we could 
hope for the time to carry, in the existing state of public opinion 
about higher education in London.” 

On all this, there was not only very close association with 
Haldane but a fairly constant association with Balfour. 
“We came together,” says Haldane, 

“because the Liberals were not up to the mark about questions 
of Higher Education. I was so keen about them that I did not 
mind accepting the opportunity of throwing myself on Balfour’s 
side on them.” 

This applied even more strongly to Sidney Webb. Per- 
meation was, at this period, at its high-water mark; he 
was ready to co-operate with any efficient agent to get 
good work done. The Act of 1898 went through, thanks 


to Haldane: Lord Rosebery became Chancellor of the 
newly-constituted London University, and, from 1900 on, 
Sidney Webb was a member of its Senate, and a most 
active member. It is as a matter of fact about another 
committee of which he was a member — the Board of 
Governors of the Imperial College of Science and Tech- 
nology at South Kensington — that the following story is 
told : but it illustrates aptly, his functioning on the London 
Senate or on any committee of the kind : 

“ On one occasion, a matter of great importance to the college was 
discussed in the absence of Sidney Webb. A decision was practi- 
cally agreed upon, but, at the last moment it was thought best to 
take a formal vote upon it at the following meeting. Sidney Webb, 
considering the decision to be wrong, attended the meeting and be- 
fore the matter was put to the vote, spoke for half an hour, giving 
a multitude of reasons why the decision should be reconsidered. 
He swung the majority round to his opinion and, as a crown- 
ing mercy, he brought Lord Halsbury, then a hale and hearty 
die-hard of over seventy, to his feet in a speech in his support.’ ’ 

Thanks largely to him, development followed the lines that 
he and Haldane had planned for it. These lines are cogently 
set out in an article he wrote for The Nineteenth Century in 
1903. Secure in the anonymity that masked this, as so 
many other parts of his work for London, he can there say: 

“It is a tribute to the far-sighed statesmanship of those who 
drafted the present scheme of reorganisation, and also to the 
prudent catholicity which has marked its present administration, 
that the University of London, only five years ago an isolated 
examining Board, without professors, students, colleges or local 
connexions of any kind, forms to-day an integral part of the 
London education system.” 

He sees London’s university as having a definite character 
of its own. “ Being, as regards its undergraduate class, 
essentially a university for the sons and daughters of house- 
holds of limited means and strenuous lives,” it must not 
try to “skim off the cream,” but must aim at gathering in 
students by the thousands. It must be a “technical school 



for all the brain-working professions of its time. Some may 
regret this limitation but the practical man will see in it a 
great opportunity.” He also sees it as a great and developing 
post-graduate centre. " A University is, or ought to be, much 
more than a mere place for teaching. Its most important 
function in the State is the advancement of every branch of 
learning.” Before London, there lies a hard task — 4 'the 
slow, hard and perhaps unlovely task of clearing the ground.” 
The realisation of dreams may be very slow in coming. 

" Innovators and reformers, having great ideals and a high 
standard, sometimes make the mistake of thinking that, even 
from the outset, nothing less than the best is admissible.” 

In phrasing, as in substance: in its quiet negativism, and 
serene underlying optimism, based on inflexible resolution, 
this little sentence is as characteristic of the man who 
wrote it as any he has ever penned. Great ideals, and a 
high standard, he had both for the London schools and for 
the London University: but, in either case, he was ready 
to make a beginning with something "less than the best,” 
just because he knew that, once a spot of firm ground 
established, he could, and would, build on from it, like the 
beaver. Not casually, therefore, has the beaver been 
taken as the sign and symbol of the other great London 
educational enterprise of which he has been parent and 
fostering nurse — the London School of Economics. 

In a reminiscent passage in which various "Webb myths” 
are killed, and no authentic doctrine or story of a personal 
kind is supplied to take their place, the founder of the 
School says that it started, in 1895, 

“in two small hired rooms in John Street, Adelphi, destitute 
even of a promise of endowment, without professor or students, 
and devoid of any visible chance of academic status.” 

How even this was made possible, he does not tell us: and 
in view of his denunciation of myth about it, one has to 
walk warily: but it is at least generally believed that a 


bequest from a North country Fabian, Hutchinson by 
name, of £5,000, to be spread over ten years, and admin- 
istered by two trustees, of whom Sidney Webb was one, 
provided the nucleus, so far as funds were concerned. As 
to the parentage of the idea, no enquiry is necessary: that 
is admittedly Webb’s own. 

For the rest, an account from his own pen is the best 
survey of what the School is, and was. He begins by noting 
as one of “ the immense changes in the mental atmosphere 
of Englishmen during the past forty years” — the vastly 
greater part now provided by Political Economy. . . . 
“Perhaps the School of Economics has had some connexion 
with this change, either as cause or as effect.” Perhaps it has. 

“It is to-day amazing to think how minute was the provision 
of economic teaching, and how lacking that for economic re- 
search, in the London of the last decade of the century. King’s 
College had a nominal professorship which was suspended. 
Professor Foxwell held a chair at University College, but had 
only a score of students, reported to be ‘one-half coloured.’ A 
rather elementary course of lectures (which I had attended in 
my youth) was annually repeated at the Birkbeck College. That 
was all that existed in the capital of the British Empire for a 
population comparable to that of the whole of Scotland (or Bel- 
gium or Holland) each of them having several Universities. 
Nor was there any dissatisfaction. The pundits solemnly declared 
that the existing provision met the entire demand; and, as they 
also suggested, amply supplied the whole need. Only young 
men in a hurry could regard the idea of a single Professor of 
Political Economy as being as obsolete as the idea of a single 
Professor of Natural History. It was revolutionary to imagine 
that there ought to be, at each centre, a dozen professors, each 
pursuing his own branch of a vast field of social study, up to 
heights, and into details, as yet undreamed of.” 

That revolutionary idea, the Webbs entertained; and 
when the chance came to make a beginning at it, they 
took it. Courage, as well as imagination, were needed; 
the Hutchinson bequest — five thousand pounds to be 
spread over ten years — was but the spot of firm ground. 



In the Preface to Industrial Democracy , they make an earnest 
plea for the need of some endowment for social research — 

“What is not generally recognised is that scientific investigation, 
in the field of sociology as in other departments of knowledge, 
requires, not only competent investigators, but a considerable 
expenditure. Practically no provision exists in this country for 
the endowment or support from public funds of any kind of 
sociological investigation. It is, accordingly, impossible at 
present to make any considerable progress even with enquiries 
of pressing urgency. ... At present, in London, the wealthiest 
city in the world, and the best of all fields for sociological in- 
vestigation, the sum total of all endowments for this purpose 
does not reach ^100 a year.” 

They keenly felt this need; felt that after a “whole century 
of marvellous discovery in physical and biological science,’ * 
the study “of the conditions of human grouping and co- 
operation” had fallen lamentably behind, although it was of 
equal, perhaps of even greater importance. With eminently 
characteristic courage, they made a start. The modest rooms 
in the Adelphi were taken : for the rest, one cannot do better 
than quote the account he wrote of the matter: 

“Mr. W. A. S. Hewins had the courage to come from Oxford 
to undertake the head ship of a non-existent institution without 
financial guarantee; and for seven years he proved not only an 
inspiring lecturer, but also an excellent pioneer organiser, until 
he elected to transfer his abilities to the field of fiscal politics. 
Gradually he gathered around him some notable (but until 
then insufficiently appreciated) teachers, such as Professor 
Graham Wallas, Edwin Cannan, and A. L. Bowley; and en- 
rolled students, first by the dozen, and very slowly by the 
hundred; at first mainly those who could attend only in the 
evening, these very gradually becoming subordinated to the 
full-time day students. The School slowly made itself known 
to economists — it may at most be said in the United States and 
in Central Europe before it was discovered by Great Britain — as 
dealing with economic and political science on the basis, less of 
abstract and deductive theory, than of ascertained facts; not 
exclusively, or even mainly, of the historic past, but largely those 
of contemporary public administration and of ‘business* itself. 



What is not usually included in the saga is that the School had, 
from the outset, some very good friends. Lord Haldane was, 
from the first, a constant advisor and supporter, Bishop Mandel 
Creighton became its first president, to be replaced on his death 
by Lord Rosebery, who on becoming Chancellor of the Uni- 
versity of London was succeeded by the late Lord Rothschild. 
The London County Council, then reaching out into Technical 
Education, encouraged the School by small and growing grants. 
Several of the 'Permanent Heads’ of the Government Depart- 
ments saw its value for the further training of their junior staffs. 
Some of them, indeed (like the late Lord Milner and Sir Robert 
Morant), themselves attended the lectures, and helped by their 
advice to mould the curriculum. Removal to superior accom- 
modation at 10 Adelphi Terrace was made possible largely by 
Mrs. Bernard Shaw. Presently, the late John Passmore Edwards 
found the money for a building — the nucleus around which the 
present commodious premises have been grouped — which the 
London County Council allowed to be placed on a site that had 
been cleared in Clare Market. On the reorganisation of London 
University in 1899 — 1900, the School was already substantial 
enough to be admitted as a constituent college; and a new 
Faculty, that of ‘ Economics and Political Science ’ (including 
Commerce and Industry,) was created expressly for the School 
to dominate. Academic distinction was thus assured. Under the 
successive directorships of Sir Halford Mackinder and the Hon. 
W. Pember Reeves, a second Faculty, that of Commerce, was 
created with influential ‘city’ support, and the institution 
steadily progressed until the Great War. It even managed to 
maintain, not only its existence, but also its traditional freedom 
from indebtedness, during the direful years when practically all 
its able-bodied male students and professors of serviceable age 
found other parts to play. In 1919 on the retirement through 
ill-health of the Hon. W. Pember Reeves, the School was for- 
tunate enough to secure, as his successor, one in whom it found 
a rare combination of scientific researcher and practical adminis- 
trator. Sir William Beveridge (Is this another case of myth? 
How did the students come to choose the beaver as the School’s 
mascot?) has to his credit not only the discovery of the particular 
social bacillus that causes the industrial disease known as casual 
employment, but also the organisation of both the nation’s 
Labour Exchanges and, during the War, its Food Rationing. 
In the decade that he has managed the School, under the chair- 
manship of Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland, he has raised it, with a 
series of bounds, to its present international pre-eminence as the 



most important centre of Economics and Political Science in the 
world. In this decade even the School premises have engendered 
their own myth — that in the buildings of the School of Economics 
the concrete is never allowed to set!” 

To-day, the London School of Economics is one of the 
greater institutions of the Metropolis, to which students 
come, not only from all over Britain, but from all over 
the world. It has close on three thousand students, at 
its day and evening classes and lectures, and its professoriate 
numbers over a hundred (and enjoys the benefit of a most 
ingenious Family Endowment Fund). Its library of books 
and pamphlets on economic and sociological subjects is 
unique. Its income and expenditure approach £100,000 
per annum; it has buildings and contents worth over half 
a million, free of debt; endowments and capital grants 
equal in capital value to a million sterling. 

This rise was gradual and steady. The School, as its 
founder states, was happy in its heads: but the consistent 
support, the unwearying service, the steady “drive” put 
behind it by the Webbs has been the indispensable element 
in its irresistible growth. Later students may well look 
up to their portraits (in the group painted by William 
Nicholson, that hangs in the Founders’ Room) with some- 
thing of awe. For many years, Sidney Webb was Professor 
(unpaid) of Public Administration at the school; it was 
at one of his lectures that the unprecedented spectacle was 
witnessed of the entire audience rising to their feet at the 
close to deliver round upon round of spontaneous applause. 

That applause may well be echoed by Londoners, when 
they stop to realise what the child of its mean streets has 
done for their and his city. In the long catalogue of the 
work done, and the service rendered, by the Webbs to 
those who come after them, there is none brighter than 
this. Why have they not been given the Freedom of the 
City? There would be an honour, genuinely appropriate. 



Whether the Webbs — as it is impossible not to call 
them — really know how to take a holiday is a matter 
sometimes canvassed by their friends. The answer is 
dubious. If holiday be taken in the ordinary sense, as 
meaning a complete relaxation of the mind, either through 
the joyful sinking into “mere being,’ * or through a total 
change in the habitual direction of its interest, it is unlikely. 
“Mere being” certainly, seems the condition of existence 
of which they have the smallest knowledge, and towards 
which they have little or no desire; nor are their minds 
often, for more than moments, detached from their major 
prepossessions. From time to time however, they have 
removed themselves from their ordinary contacts and 
from their habitual routine. They did so, early in 1898. 
Their first great work was completed. It had been more 
than respectfully received. They had become public 
characters, and public characters of very substantial 
significance. Success connoted no remission of effort; 
on the contrary. Plans were laid, and research was already 
set in train for a new and truly gigantic undertaking; 
The History of Local Government in England , before they left 
London for the first of their world tours. They no doubt 
had it in mind, as they talked to people who knew, and 
visited institutions which mattered, in the United States, 
in Canada, in Australia, in New Zealand, and elsewhere, 
in the course of their six months’ absence. 

The fact that they spent these six months largely in 
learning about the Empire, and in seeing, at close range, 




some of its possibilities and its problems, was not without 
its influence on their reaction to the changes that met 
them when they got home again to Grosvenor Road; 
above all, their reaction to the two most important of these 
changes. They were of very differing kinds. If the one 
that most people completely disregarded at the time is 
put first, the reason is that it was a constructive event: 
the initial steps had been taken towards the formation 
of an independent Labour Party. Who cared? when 
the Balfour Government was plainly drifting into war 
with the South African Republics. At the time, of course, 
to the vast majority of British citizens, this second event 
entirely overshadowed the first: indeed, few were those, 
outside the professional political ranks, who were so much 
as aware that it had in fact taken place, or would have 
cared, if they had been aware. It is, however, a little 
surprising to find the Webbs apparently agreeing with 
the general public in this view. For the event which 
the press and the public disregarded and barely observed 
represented the precise achievement the Fabians had 
forecast, and struggled to bring about, in the days when 
Sidney Webb had been the guiding spirit in their counsels. 

In 1890 and 1891, as has already been noted, the Fabians, 
and above all, he and Bernard Shaw, were busy gingering 
up the Radical Clubs, and forcing a programme of con- 
structive action upon the Liberal Party. The Newcastle 
Programme of 1891 was to a large extent the outcome 
of their efforts. The Liberal hierarchy, however, remained 
unmoved and apparently immovable. So, when a General 
Election came in June 1892, the Manifesto put out by 
the Fabians was a blunt declaration of disgust. It tells 
the workers, straight, that unless and until they form 
a Party of their own — which they could easily do, if they 
cared as much about politics as they did about horse- 
racing — they have nothing whatever to look forward to. 


A year later, this dismal prophecy appeared to have 
justified itself. A specific pledge had, for instance* been 
given by the Liberals that they would install model con- 
ditions of employment, etc., in Government Departments 
and contracts. Although this could have been accomplished 
by administrative action, nothing had been done. 

A very considerable sensation was produced when in 
The Fortnightly Review , for November 1893, there appeared 
an article over the signatures of Sidney Webb and Bernard 
Shaw, containing a stinging attack on broken Liberal 
promises. It bore the challenging title, “To Your Tents, 
O Israel!” and there was nothing ambiguous about either 
its positive proposals or its denunciation of Liberalism. 
Liberalism the workers were specifically summoned to 
abandon, and adjured to form “a Trade Union political 
Party of their own.” It was to be independent: it was 
to be based on the Unions ; it was to start by raising enough 
money to run at least fifty independent Labour candidates. 
In January 1894, this article was reprinted as a pamphlet, 
under the title, A Plan of Campaign for Labour. As such, 
it was widely read, and had no small influence. 

The whole thing, to Liberals, was a piece of wanton 
sabotage of the Government. They were exceedingly 
angry. H. W. Massingham resigned from the Fabian 
Society, and attacked it and all its ways and works, in 
season and out of season, in the columns of the Daily 
Chronicle. The wrath of the Liberals was partly due to 
a deep and growing dissatisfaction with themselves, their 
party, their leaders, and their Government. The contrast 
between the cheerful effectiveness of the Progressives on 
the Council and the factious futility of the Rosebery admin- 
istration of 1892-5 was painful. By 1895 that administration 
was plainly breaking up, and breaking up mainly from 
its own internal weakness. As Mr. J. A. Spender puts 
it in his Life of Sir William Harcourt — 



‘‘The vessel of the Government did not enter upon the session of 
1895 in a very seaworthy condition. The captain had failed to 
fulfil the high expectations entertained of his attractive but 
indeterminate character; the chief lieutenant was hardly on 
speaking terms with him; the crew were torn with dissensions: 
there was profound disagreement on the line of policy that should 
be put before the country, and though the budget had been a 
dazzling success, it did not serve to cover the general sense of 
failure and disintegration. It was obvious that whenever the 
election came, the Liberal ship would founder.” 

It did founder. In the years between this and the out- 
break of the South African War, the Webb-Shaw call 
looked more and more like justifying itself. Lord Rosebery 
was in a rather sulky retirement; the Opposition was 
divided into three wings — the Liberal Imperialists, who 
still attached their colours to his mast, the followers of 
Harcourt, and those of Morley. By 1898, the internal 
wrangles had reached a pitch which compelled first Harcourt 
and then Morley to resign. “A party rent by sectional 
disputes and personal interests,” wrote Harcourt to Morley, 
“is one which no man can consent to lead either with 
credit to himself or advantage to the country.” Liberalism, 
in these dark years, certainly appeared to be going out 
of business. 

Meantime, the 1893 ca H had had, almost at once, a 
practical result. At Bradford, in the later part of that same 
year, the Independent Labour Party had been founded by 
Keir Hardie: and the I.L.P. was, from the start, expressly 
dedicated to bringing the Trade Unions into politics, and 
getting them to form a party whose determining policy 
was Socialism. As yet, the Unions stood aloof: the I.L.P. 
was a party formed by individuals, although the Fabian 
Society co-operated in bringing it into life, in so far as 
representatives of it attended the Foundation Conference 
at Bradford. Sidney Webb, however, was not one of them. 
Of course, part of the explanation may be that he was 


otherwise engaged: his Council work was absorbing. But 
has there ever been a time when he has not found it possible 
to carry on three or four lines of activity at once? One 
cannot think of such. If he did not go to Bradford, or, in 
the years that followed, take any part in the Fabian co- 
operation in the I.L.P., the reason is not that he had no 
time for it; but that he did not think it worth while. As 
a matter of fact, a distinctly non-political note sounds in 
the closing paragraphs of The History of Trade Unionism , 
which came out in 1894, a Y ear a ^ ter this event. True, 
they state: 

“Thus we find throughout the whole Trade Union world, an 
almost unanimous desire to make the working class organisations 
in some way effective for political purposes.” 

But, while paying tribute to the “sense of solidarity ” 
which “had never been lacking,” and remarking that the 
“ Collectivist faith of the New Unionism” is “only another 
manifestation of this same instinctive solidarity,” they 
proceed, firmly and candidly, to stress Sectionalism as the 
“very basis of Trade Union organisation.” Moreover, 
while the question of how to make 

“the Trade Union world, with its million of electors, and its 
leadership of Labour, an effective political force in the State, is, 
on the whole, the most momentous question of contemporary 

the suggestions thrown out in the final paragraph, do not 
reach beyond 

“the development of Trade Councils, the reform of the Trade 
Union Congress, the increased efficiency of the Parliamentary 
Committee, the growth of Trade Union representation in the 
House of Commons, or, finally, the creation of a new federal 

This last passage is, of course, mainly negative ; but it sums 
up their conclusions, and in its very negativism suggests 
a much chastened optimism, when set beside “To your 



Tents, O Israel!” It suggests that the Webbs were not in 
any very hopeful or active sympathy with the efforts at 
this juncture being made by Keir Hardie, and backed by 
John Burns and Tom Mann, to use the I.L.P. as the fulcrum 
for the foundation of a definitely political Trade Union 
Labour Party. 

These efforts, in 1 894, gained at least so much of success 
that a Socialist resolution was passed by the Trade Union 
Congress, in that year. In 1895, however, at Cardiff, the 
other side re-asserted itself, and a resolution was passed 
excluding from Trade Union delegacy all save persons 
either actually working at trade or paid officials of their 
Union — a decision which shut out, and was meant to shut 
out, M.P.’s like Keir Hardie and John Burns, if it also 
operated to exclude the arch reactionary (on this point) 
Henry Broadhurst. In 1896, at Edinburgh, worse befell: 
the Socialist resolution was rescinded; the tide seemed to 
be running hard against Independent Labourism. Under 
the surface, however, its course was different. In 1898, 
the success of the German Social Democratic Party in 
getting no fewer than fifty Socialist members returned to 
the Reichstag, with a vote behind them that had jumped 
from 100,000 in 1891 to over 3,000,000, was a clarion call 
to British Socialists. As such, it was heard: in September 
1899 the Plymouth Congress decided to call a Special 
Conference of all Trade Unions, Co-operative and Socialist 
Societies and other working-class organisations, to 

“devise ways and means for the securing of an increased number 
of Labour M.P.’s in the next parliament.” 

This sounded innocuous enough, but Keir Hardie and his 
associates were determined to drive their advantage home, 
and knew how to do it. The Fabian representatives at the 
Special Conference, Bernard Shaw and Edward Pease, 
supported him, staunchly. Indeed, Edward Pease was a 


member of the Labour Representation Committee which 
that Special Conference set up, with J. Ramsay MacDonald 
as its secretary. 

Later on, ample tribute w r as to be paid by the historians 
of Trade Unionism to the vital importance of this step, 
and to the work of MacDonald in keeping the Labour 
Representation Committee alive so that it could be used 
to exploit the Taff Vale Decision 1 and so lead in 1901 to 
the establishment of an effective Labour Party. At the 
time, however, Sidney Webb was a non-co-operator. He 
thought the tactics poor. They smacked of that premature 
and enthusiastic affixing of labels to bottles, which he 
deprecates. For him, always, what matters is to get the 
patient to drink the mixture; and at this stage, and not 
without good arguments on his side, he thought he was 
more likely to drink, for his own good, and also to the 
promotion of sound doctrine, if advertisement w r as eschewed. 
He was deeply engaged in the alternative method. In the 
Progressive Party on the Council, he had got that association 
of good citizens for which he had pleaded in 1889 and 1890: 
and the Progressive Party was proving, under his leadership, 
a singularly effective instrument for getting a certain 
amount of practical Socialism quickly and quietly accom- 
plished. So far as the foundation of the Labour Representa- 
tion Committee went, the issue, as between Webb on one 
hand, and Hardie and MacDonald on the other, was one 
of method. Grosvenor Road was dedicated to a different 
method. Its entire atmosphere was of a kind calculated 
to cast doubt on the political instrument, as clumsy, senti- 

1 This legal judgment, delivered in 1901, arose out of an unofficial strike 
on the Taff Vale Railway in South Wales. The Railway Company sued the 
Railwaymen’s Union for damages, which the Courts awarded it. The effect 
of this was to make every Trade Union, while legally denied the privileges 
of incorporation, liable to be sued in respect of any act committed by anyone 
deemed to be its agent which the Judges might hold to be actionable. Whether 
or no sound in law, this judgment plainly contravened the express intentions 
of Parliament in its 1871-6 legislation. The Trade Disputes Act of 1906 
accordingly restored the pre-Taff Vale position. 



mental and wasteful: as on the use of that instrument by 
men of the Hardie type. As against slogans, of any kind, 
Webb re-acted, naturally; he re-acted with particular 
emphasis at this stage, when to his native belief in admin- 
istration was added the discovery of himself as an eminent 
success in the administrative role. Moreover who knew 
the Trade Unions, if not he? He thought, and justly, 
between 1893 and 1901, that they were at best lukewarm, 
and only accepted the Labour Representation Committee 
out of weariness with the persistency of Hardie. Since, 
therefore, little or nothing actual was going to come of it, 
the whole thing was showy, premature and rather futile. 
This is the note that sounds in his polemical journalism, 
at this time, and for some years after. It seemed justified 
by many facts. 

At the turn of the century, political interest, generally, 
was at a low ebb. Of the rate of progress of Socialist 
propaganda in middle-class circles, the membership of the 
Fabian Society afforded a thermometer: one at which the 
Webbs naturally looked. It rose, steadily, if slowly, up 
to 1899: from that point it proceeded to decline. Part 
indeed, of the sheer heroism of Keir Hardie’s effort lies in 
the fact that he carried it on, with tireless faith and un- 
breakable resolution, during a period of dull reaction so 
far as Socialist propaganda, and even so far as advanced 
Liberalism, was concerned. He won a formal success, 
partly because people were sick of his persistence. Then 
he and MacDonald turned that purely formal success into 
a real one, and did it at a time when everything was against 
them: when the outbreak of the war suspended ordinary 
political action, cut across the old political lines and pro- 
duced deep internal division, even within the slender 
Socialist ranks. 

Here, of course, we come to the major explanation of the 
attitude taken by the Webbs at this stage. On October 


1 ith, 1899, less than a month, that is to say, after the crucial 
resolution of the Plymouth Trade Union Congress, the 
Balfour Government declared war on the South African 
Republics. War, any war, oversweeps the ordered world 
and swamps it under the hot tides of primitive feeling. 
These are not the tides in which the Webbs swim, naturally 
and easily. They derive from just those irrational elements 
in the mixed average human make-up they neither fully 
share nor easily comprehend. Between 1899 and 1901, as 
between 1914 and 1918, emotion rather than reason was 
in control. Passion drove minds back to ‘‘first principles,” 
and about first principles, above all when expressed in 
high idealistic terms and tones, they both have always been 
more than a little sceptical. In some ways, the situation 
was even more tense than in 1914, and feeling consequently 
even more bitter, on either side. Not only did the actual 
fortunes of the war sway uncertain in the earlier years: the 
opposition at home was more formidable, and its position 
complicated by the existence of active and vocal foreign 
opinion, which enabled patriots to deride pacifists as being 
definitely “anti-British.” In 1899, the small band which 
took a purely pacifist stand was reinforced by a much more 
considerable body of persons who disapproved of the 
Declaration of War on the Boer Republics, thought that 
the war had been brought about by a course of British 
policy wrong in itself and stupidly if not maliciously con- 
ducted, which was directed by a standpoint unworthy and 
unjust, and defended on grounds that were blatantly 

The Government which made the war was a Conservative 
Government. True, the Liberal Opposition was divided. 
The Liberal Imperialists supported Balfour and Cham- 
berlain, at first whole-heartedly; later, under the swing of 
opinion, rather more half-heartedly. But Campbell- 
Bannerman, the Leader of the party, early denounced the 



“ methods of barbarism” by which the war was being 
conducted, and roundly declared that “self government 
was better than good government;” and, despite the bitter 
attacks upon him from within the ranks of his own nominal 
adherents, his steadiness prevailed, his courage shamed his 
critics, and his point of view, in the end, became that of 
the Liberal Party as a whole. There was a longish period 
during which meetings sought to be addressed by Mr. 
Lloyd George, who was much more definitely a pro-Boer 
than Campbell-Bannerman, were regularly broken up, 
while Campbell-Bannerman himself was denounced in 
unmeasured terms, in the Press and on the platform. Yet, 
there they were, throughout. There was throughout a 
solid opposition — a fact that made the simpler sort of 
patriot uneasy: the more uneasy that the Boers were proving 
very hard to beat. 

In the reaction of the Webbs, many elements combined 
to set them on the side of the majority. They were just 
back from a visit to the Empire. Imperial efficiency was 
a creed that appealed to them, potently. Although, in 
many respects, far from being “typical Britons,” they are, 
at bottom, very English ; and in nothing more so than in a 
certain naive, direct, and simple patriotic feeling. What 
he felt about London, they both felt about their country as 
a whole, and that in a perfectly normal form. To neither 
had the idealism or the knight errantry of Gladstone ever 
appealed. His Radicalism, like hers, was of the domestic 
Chamberlain brand, and there was much in Chamberlain’s 
outlook, besides his collectivist leanings, that attracted 
them. Their closest Conservative friend was Arthur Balfour ; 
their closest Liberal friend R. B. Haldane. Efficiency at 
home and abroad: efficiency as expressed, domestically 
and imperially, in a high standard of education, public 
health, and public provision generally, was what they were 
out for. To have action on such lines deflected by mere 


Nationalism was intolerably stupid. They had no love 
for the South African capitalist or his British friends, but 
the pro-Boer line seemed to them purely sentimental and 
Nationalist, and they read anti-war as pro-Boer. They 
were eminently not pro-Boers, though it is a travesty of 
their attitude to call them Jingoes. They were “Great 
Englanders,” and could not understand the “Little Eng- 
land ” standpoint, or what it was all about. 

On this issue they found themselves in sharp collision 
with the Independent Labour Party, which, under the 
guidance of Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, was hot 
against the war. MacDonald, indeed, having been a 
member of the Fabian Executive since 1894, tried to get 
the Society to take his line. Webb and Shaw opposed him, 
on this. The Fabian Society was not a political society. 
They were in no sense equipped to express a view on the 
war: it would have no weight if they did, and would serve 
no useful purpose. Anyhow, the Society was divided on 
the matter: the effort to force the issue might break it up. 
That not to express a view against the war would be taken, 
in the hectic circumstances of the hour, as an expression 
of support of it, might be a description of what would be 
said : it was not a true description of fact. It was, however, 
another argument against pressing the matter to a vote, 
whose result, one way or the other, was certain to be mis- 
interpreted. MacDonald however, took the view that 
“those who are not with us are against us.” He was 
defeated after a postal ballot of members, which showed 
217 for him, and 259 against. Inevitably, at a time when 
feeling ran intensely high, the defeat of the Peace resolution, 
as it was called, was interpreted as being a declaration by 
the Fabians in favour of the war. On that ground, a 
handful of members — fifteen — resigned, including Mac- 
Donald, and, oddly enough, J. F. Green, who was to defeat 
him as a “pro-German” at Leicester in 1918. 


This division on the South African War between the 
Webbs and the Left wing of the Socialist groups lasted 
for some years. It accounts in the main for their alienation 
during the next few years from the struggles through which 
the Labour Party was being brought into effective life. The 
I.L.P. stigmatised them as Jingoes, which they were not; 
they regarded the I.L.P. as a bunch of pro-Boers, and 
regretfully saw the new Labour Party being led off into 
the wilderness of self-righteousness. There was, however, 
a great deal going on that they simply did not understand. 
Keir Hardie and MacDonald knew, better than they 
did, the oddly romantic souls of many thousands of British 
workmen and their capacity to be stirred by issues that 
had nothing to do with bread and butter. They failed 
entirely to grasp the emotional forces that were to sweep 
the Liberals back in 1906 with, as their hero, Campbell- 
Bannerman, simple, straightforward, not clever, but all 
the better for that, and with a bull-dog tenacity 
of will; or the immense changes of mood and surges 
of feeling that were, again in 1906, to send forty Labour 
M.P.’s to Westminster with Hardie and MacDonald at 
their head. 

A clue to their outlook at the turn of the century is to 
be found in a very significant article which Sidney Webb 
wrote for The Nineteenth Century in September 1901. He 
calls it — he is always conspicuously good at titles — Lord 
Rosebery s Escape from Hounds ditch . In this very lively piece, 
his point of departure is the extension, to that ambiguous 
statesman, of warm congratulations on having got rid 
of the “Gladstonian old clothes.” From Gladstonian 
Liberalism, “dead as the dodo,” with its “atomic concep- 
tion of society,” its “obsolete hypocrisies” about “peoples 
rightly struggling to be free,” and its “ vieux jeu Victorian 
Nationalism,” the great centres of population in England 
are, he tells him, “utterly alienated.” Unhappily, the 


Socialists fail entirely to see this: to them he extends very 
short shrift. Thus, in a vigorous passage, he declares 

“What hinders the formation of a separate Socialist party in 
England is always that the increase of Socialism is so much 
faster than that of professed or organised Socialists. By the time 
the professed Socialists were weaned from their primitive policy 
of the ‘conversion of England ’ and the formation of an all-power- 
ful Socialist Party, to a policy of permeating the existing parties, 
the horizon was widened by the rise of Imperialism, and the 
advent of modern world-politics. The Socialists, having no 
views of their own on foreign politics, immediately found their 
boom of 1885-92 collapsing; for a time, they could only account 
for this by the ‘apathy of the working classes.’ When the war 
came, the secret was out. Outside the two spheres of labour 
and local government, the majority of the Socialist leaders proved 
to be, with regard to the British Empire, mere administrative 
Nihilists — that is to say, ultra-Nationalist, ultra-Gladstonian, 
Old-Liberal to the fingertips. They out-Morleyed Morley on 
the burning topic of the day, and now, the Independent Labour 
Party is as hopelessly out of the running as the Gladstonian 

No Front Bench, so he assures Rosebery, can be really 
effective, still less can it cross the floor of the House of 
Commons, unless 

“it expresses not alone the views of its own political partisans, 
but also the inarticulate criticism of the mass of the people.” 

What citizens are wanting is 

“virility in government; virility in South Africa, virility in our 
relations with the rest of the world, and, by no means least, 
virility in grappling with the problems of domestic administra- 

So far as the British Empire is concerned, 

“Our obvious duty ... is deliberately so to organise it as to 
promote the maximum development of each individual state 
within its bounds. As with the factory or the slum at home, this 
maximum development . . . will not be secured by allowing 
each unit to pursue its own ends without reference to the welfare 
of the whole.” 



Lord Rosebery is right about an Imperial race : let him also 
be right about National efficiency based on a National 
Minimum, in which Public Health and Public Education 
are the first chapters. Let him lay to heart the lesson of the 
London County Council. 

“He is struck by the repeated successes of the Progressive Party 
in the L.C.C. But these successes are not gained by any enuncia- 
tion of general principles, or merely by the declaration that the 
Progressives stood for progress, or for efficiency, in the abstract. 
They were, as Lord Rosebery knows, won by a persistent and 
all-pervading propaganda of a detailed programme of reform in 
every department: resolute and even extreme in its character; 
put forward by a group of men w r ho had definitely thought out 
what they intended to get done; and who, at the risk of calumny 
and misunderstanding at the West End and in the City, did not 
shrink from painting the sky red with their projects.” 

From this, and other articles written about the turn of 
the century, one gets a pretty clear view of where they 
stood. What they looked for was an association of men of 
good will for a programme of active social development. 
The I.L.P. had sailed off into romantic nationalist pacifism: 
Chamberlain was preparing to break up the Conservatives 
on Protection; why not cut across all this with a big social 
reform programme on non-party lines? If for a moment, 
they saw Rosebery as the man to do this, the illusion did 
not last. Webb, himself, had no idea of entering active 
politics, although just at this time a strong plea was put up 
to him to do so. T. B. Potter, a relation of Mrs. Webb’s, 
had represented Rochdale for thirty years. It was a safe 
Liberal scat; just the seat for an Independent. Would 
Mr. Webb consent to succeed Mr. Potter? Proposals came 
through the “ordinary channels, “ only to be politely rejected. 
Then, one morning, the secretary, on his way downstairs, 
discerned, through the glass door of 41, the figure of someone 
standing on the mat. When he opened the door, although 
he at once recognised the visitor, he enquired his name. 


“Mr. Primrose, to see Mr. Webb.” 

Even Lord Rosebery’s personal efforts did not, however, 
avail. To him, quite frankly, Webb stated his view — the 
Liberals were going to be in Opposition for twenty years; 
he could do much more good outside the House of Commons 
than inside. Anyhow, that he could ever have been a Liberal 
member, however independent, seems unlikely. Deep as 
his alienation from the pro-Boer attitude, as from every 
attitude based merely on sentiment, however exalted, there 
was no change whatever in his general Collectivist outlook. 
The difference between him and the I.L.P. was a difference 
about method, and arose out of his passion for getting things 
done. The ‘‘condition of England” question seemed to 
him, as to Mrs. Webb, of first concern. They must always 
have fundamentally agreed with Carlyle s irritation against 
persons who fly into a passion about the “green and yellow 
and black slaves,” while the actual sufferings of millions of 
white slaves so much nearer at hand leave them practically 
unconcerned. Their optimism as well as their realism 
came into play here. Rather than the desperate and showy 
romance of storming impregnable battlements with flying 
flags, doomed to go down in defeat, they have always 
chosen the slow and steady path round and ultimately up 
the citadel. As they were to put it much later 

“We arc not pessimists, because wc believe that, sooner or 

later, good feeling and reason will prevail.” 

Never in the darkest hour did they doubt of progress. 
Never did they give up working for it, whoever disagreed 
with them. 

If they have always believed in reason, their practical 
good feeling has been not less striking. As a very young 
woman, she says “I love my friends— have never yet lost 
one.” This remained true of both. Deep differences of 
opinion on the Education Act made only the briefest sus- 



pension in friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Graham Wallas. 
They forgave Lord Rosebery his educational back-slidings. 
The more bitter alienations of the South African War did 
not last. 1901 did produce alienation but left no lasting 
breach. So far as MacDonald was concerned, the severance 
of frequent association continued for some time; as a 
member of the School Board, he attacked Webb, bitterly; 
but Webb did not retort in kind, and before very many 
years had passed they were working together, in a manner 
that does honour to both. Friendship was, here, never in 
question; that, between minds and tempers fundamentally 
antithetical, could not have existed, in any circumstances. 
To what she has called MacDonald’s “artistic quality,” 
to his personal magnetism and sheer mental power, Mrs. 
Webb has paid specific tribute; but neither of them ever 
liked him, nor he them. 

The early years of the new century found them mainly 
out of politics. He was of course inveterately busy on the 
London County Council: the opposition, there, to the new 
Education Acts was protracted and ingenious; to overcome 
it, make the Acts work, called for all his skill and tact and 
all his sheer obliviousness to merely emotional motives. 
They were busy on their new book: they were busy on 
countless committees: they were busy moulding and direct- 
ing opinion. In 1903 they dropped out an admirable little 
work on The History of Liquor Licensing — a sort of side-line 
in their vast Local Government enquiry: in that same year, 
he was made a member of the Committee on Trade Union 
Law which the Balfour Government set up, just before it 
fell. By then, even the Tories had begun to realise that 
something absolutely must be done about the Taff Vale 
Decision of 1901. This decision, in fact, was to be a major 
element in the immense swing of opinion against the Balfour 
Government when the election came. But there is no 
indication that the Webbs, on this or any other line, foresaw 


the great revulsion of 1906. The emotional tides that 
culminated in 1906 in the return of a vast Liberal majority, 
and of a Labour Party of over forty members, to the House 
of Commons, were of a kind to leave them cold. Although 
in the 1920 edition of their History of Trade Unionism will 
be found the best account existing both of the rise of the 
Labour Party and of the forces and circumstances out 
of which it arose, they did not anticipate or share in its 
emergence. Oddly enough, the one individual, of those 
with whom they were closely concerned about this time, 
who did smell the coming political change, was H. G. Wells. 

H. G. Wells had joined the Fabian Society in 1903, by 
which time he had already won himself a bright reputation 
as one of the most thought-provoking social novelists of 
the day. His immense vitality as well as his intellectual 
“background in science” interested and attracted the 
Webbs; they took him up, talked about him to everybody, 
and had the greatest hopes of the new and vivid drive that 
he could bring into good causes generally. He was then 
an ardent Socialist: ardour was altogether in his line. 
By 1906 he was all for expanding and reforming the Fabian 
Society: making it over into something quite different 
and much more Wellsian. His paper on The Faults of the 
Fabian was quite in the best early mutual fun-poking trad- 
ition, and nobody enjoyed it more at the time that the so- 
called “Junta,” of which of course Shaw and Webb were 
the dominating figures. Actually read in February 1906, 
after the General Election, it had been prepared before 
it. Sketchy and quite unreal in its practical proposals 
(Had Mr. Wells ever been on a Committee before?), it 
was securely grounded on the assumption that Socialism, 
at the close of 1905, was in the air, and had only got to be 
intelligently condensed to become a mighty force. Why 
should the Society not exploit this superb opportunity? 
Why should it not come out into the open: cease to be 



Fabian, and, instead, launch out on a great propaganda 
campaign — hundreds of centres, thousands, nay millions, of 
members? This trumpet blast reverberated thrillingly 
enough in the ears ol many Fabian members who found 
Mr. Wells’ personality and his reputation very exciting, 
and were struck by his prophetic flair. When it came to 
translating the fine ideas of his plan into action, it proved, 
tiresomely enough, that the campaign required funds, 
which did not exist: a membership, which did not exist: 
and a detailed scheme of work, which did not exist. Strong 
in phrases, Mr. Wells was weak in facts. 

The details of the controversy within the Society are not, 
now, of interest to anybody: in the upshot, the struggle 
became one of personalities, and, in effect, a duel between 
Shaw and Wells. Shaw rather than Webb was the pro- 
tagonist of the official view, the exponent of the practical 
against the purely theoretical. When, at the final decisive 
meeting, Shaw declared that H. G. Wells’ motion amounted, 
as he had himself stated, to a vote of want of confidence, 
the result was certain. Defeated on his general reform plan, 
Wells then took up a new line. The Suffrage agitation was 
surging round them: New Morals and New Women were 
filling columns of the press, daily: the Socialists ought, he 
urged, to take a stand about it all: above all about the 
Family, and about Motherhood. The trouble was that 
“ exactly what he proposed,” says Mr. Pease, “was never 
clear.” It was on his vagueness that the “old gang” 
disagreed with him. So soon as he pressed for something 
concrete, he got his way. Thus when he proclaimed that 
the equality of women ought to go into the Basis, he found 
powerful allies. Mrs. Pember Reeves got on to the war- 
path: she was supported by no less a person than Mrs. 
Webb, who took this opportunity of announcing her con- 
version to the views she had once opposed. Equality was 
therefore carried. What Mr. Wells wanted, however, was 


something more than this; he talked loosely of “the sub- 
stitution of public for private authority in the education 
and support of the young. ,, No one, however, could gather 
precisely what he meant. Then, while the Committee, 
set up, at his instance, on the revision of the Basis, on his 
lines, was still at work, with himself and various allies as 
members, he suddenly resigned in the autumn of 1908. 
In his letter of resignation, he expressed disagreement with 
the Basis ; since it did not include some sort of endowment 
of motherhood, it was a “miserable perversion of Socialism 
and went on to state that the opportunity for propaganda 
among the British middle-class was “now over.” His 
original stand had been for close co-operation by the Society 
with the Labour Party, and the running and exclusive 
support of Socialist candidates everywhere, to which end 
he got the Society to adopt a scheme in January 1908. 
Yet, in May of that same year, he supported a Liberal 
candidate against a Socialist in N.-W. Manchester, and 
declared that he should resign if the Society did not accept 
his view that “it is not a political society, and its membership 
involves no allegiance to any political party.” As a matter 
of fact, on this May letter he had been hauled over the 
coals, to be defended by Sidney Webb on general grounds 
of the desirability of tolerance, and the fact that the Fabian 
Society was not a polidcal society. 

The incident of course, was complicated by personal 
acdon on the part of Mr. Wells, which, with his remarkable 
sense of taste, he has set out, from his own point of view, 
in The New Machiavelli (published in 1 9 1 1 ) and in Ann 
Veronica. In the first of these widely-read novels, he did his 
best not only to pillory the associates and friends with whom 
the episode had brought him into contact, but, inferentially, 
to cast a slur over the causes for which, at the time, they had 
thought he and they were working in common. So far 
as the exceedingly spiteful picture of themselves was con- 



cerned, the Webbs read it, when it came out in the pages 
of The English Review , with Spartan fortitude and a measure 
of perfectly genuine entertainment — hardly shared by others, 
who having laughed heartily at the picture of them, found 
their own successive portraits notably less funny. The affair 
made a great dust at the time: they refused to be put out. 
When, nearly ten years later, Mr. Wells sent them an early 
copy of The Outline of History , they at once wrote an acknowl- 
edgment full of warm praise of his work, which they have 
never ceased to think highly important. 

If, between 1900 and 1909 they took no active part in 
politics, they were very busy indeed socially. 41, Grosvenor 
Road was, in these years, a veritable focus of opinion. There 
were some people who did not enjoy their parties. There 
were some people who did not enjoy Mrs. Webb. She could, 
and at times did, look her vivid expressive contempt at 
the merely social : and this meant that there were a number 
of wives, at any given time, who did not greatly care for 
her. Men sometimes, but less often, heartily disliked Beatrice : 
the men for whom her brains were too good, or her way of 
using them oppressive; they resented the way in which she 
‘‘bore down” upon them. Something was lost, no doubt 
through the fact that some, of either sex, were definitely 
afraid of her. Those who got easily bored with discussion 
and preferred mere talk also found Grosvenor Road a bit 
of a strain: the conversation was apt to be on one note, 
and to be terribly well-informed: it was also constantly 
tending to degenerate into the useful. None of this, how- 
ever, could offset the influence of a pair of persons whose 
knowledge of things and acquaintance with people was 
literally, in either case, immense: and who never let go. 

In this sense they affected not opinion only but conduct. 
Few of those who came in contact with them escaped being 
influenced, to some degree, by the immense devotion, the 
athletic, almost ascetic, discipline of their regulated life; 


by the standard of work they set before themselves and 
maintained, or by the unwearying steadiness of their cheerful 
faith in the views they held. Even those whom they ex- 
asperated had to pay a tribute of admiration when they 
stopped to reflect. They annoyed some of their acquaint- 
ances: annoyed them the more that good grounds for that 
feeling could rarely be given — which only made it worse. 
To drink they may, who knows, have driven one or two: 
to work they had inspired far more. 

Not the smallest part of their contribution has been the 
visual fact of two Socialists for whom Socialism is not a 
vague, occasional aspiration towards a hazy, distant ideal, 
but a robustly practical rule of present existence, and of 
happy existence. Their action helped — the simplicity, 
nay austerity of their personal lives and habits. For years, 
Mrs. Webb on 'best’ occasions wore the same crimson velvet 
dress — and very becoming it was. In it, with her tall slender 
darkness, her vivid flashing eyes, and her agitated dark 
hair, in which two wings of grey were beginning to appear, 
she could look very handsome, although she had an invet- 
erate habit of tying herself into knots as she sat on her 
favourite low stool. Sidney was, invariably, in neat blue 
serge. They eschewed evening dress, as they did the sort 
of parties at which it was obligatory Their complete 
abstention from large Society had its effect, as had their 
plainly genuine and genuinely humorous contempt for, 
and bright exposure of, the follies and foibles of social and 
other climbers. For some they talked too much: he softly, 
she shrilly: but their talk helped, notably in their constant 
habit of presenting the Socialist point of view as the one 
that really had got to be taken by any rational, informed 
intelligence. This enraged some people; enraged them the 
more that they saw them making Socialism respectable — 
intellectually and also economically and morally respectable. 
Not by toning it down, but by treating it as obvious, once 



you began to use your head. The combination of tolerance 
with serene conviction, based on knowledge and on an 
experience incapable of knowing the taint of envy or jeal- 
ousy, made them very hard people indeed to argue against. 
No captain of industry, no banker, no economist, no repre- 
sentative of that governing order which derives its easy 
authority from command over, and indubitable familiarity 
with, the world as it is, could “down” them. They always, 
he from one angle, she from another, knew more about it; 
the interlocutor could never get across his sense that their 
views were odd; they suggested to him that his were: 
that he in fact, could not defend them. Grosvenor Road, 
at this period was a formidable force — the more formidable 
that even the most hostile, unless, like Mr. Wells, blinded 
by personal spleen, had to see it as disinterested. 



In 1890, Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics was 
sent by H. W. Massingham to Sidney Webb, to review 
for The Star. He read its seven hundred and fifty pages 
through at a single sitting, “got up staggering under it,” 
and wrote to Beatrice Potter: 

“It is a great book, nothing new — showing the way, not following 
it. For all that, it is a great book, it will supersede Mill. But it 
will not make an epoch in Economics. Economics has still to 
be re-made. Who is to do it? Either you must help me to do it; 
or I must help you.” 

Impossible to say what the final order proved, in the 
work of re-making economics to which they set their hands. 
Mr. Beer, the learned historian of British Socialism, from 
whom the title of this chapter is borrowed, expresses, in 
that title, his sense of the achievement of the Webbs: 
their work for him constitutes a landmark as significant, 
and as constructive, as that of Owen or of Marx, the two 
preceding giants. He also gives it as his own view that, 
in that achievement, the master-mind was that of Sidney. 
Him he characterises as “an essentially constructive mind.” 
He had, as Beer agrees, great allies. 

“He has been greatly assisted by the analytical powers and 
dialectical skill of G. B. Shaw, and to a higher degree by the 
social knowledge, ethical ferv our, and great literary gifts of Mrs. 
Sidney Webb”: 

but while their help and their contributions are not to 
be ignored, Sidney, in his judgment, is the veritable 
pioneer in the economic field. 



With this judgment, whether right or wrong, his life- 
partner would assuredly agree. Always does she speak 
of him as “the senior partner in the firm.” Always do 
their names appear in non-alphabetical order, as Sidney 
and Beatrice. And it is probably accurate, this order. 
So far as the economic substratum of their sociological 
thinking goes, he had worked it out, in its main and solid 
outline, before he met her. Again, on the purely economic 
side, the stronger strand in the texture they were to weave 
together was of his provision. Here as elsewhere, however, 
the effort to make any rigid separation between the con- 
tribution of one and that of the other is self-defeating. 
The interweaving of the strands is complete. The re- 
making of economics was a joint effort, in all its 

They have in effect, for this largely re-made economics. 
But what they have done has not been to create or 
expound any new economic doctrine of the abstract 
or theoretical kind. True, in the development of the 
law of Rent, from the simple application to land alone 
of J. S. Mill, and through the modifications imported 
into it by Jevons, into a law of general applicability to 
all the forms and phases of economic activity throughout 
Capitalist society, they make a contribution, and a highly 
important one, to economic theory in the strictest sense. 
Vital as is this contribution, it is not in it that their most 
distinctive achievement consists. They are, pre-eminently, 
the Einsteins of economics. Their major work is their 
demonstration of its essential Relativity. 

That economics is a series of statements of tendencies, 
had, of course, been stated, before they set to work upon 
it. It is so described, for instance, by Professor Marshall, 
in The Principles which Webb reviewed in 1890. But, 
having made that statement, the theoretic economist was 
apt to leave it there, and forget about it; apt to proceed, 

1 62 


with increasing apparent authority as he relied more and 
more on mathematical formulae, to enunciate laws of 
seemingly immutable cogency, and existing independent 
of the circumstances or the form of general social dis- 
pensation that surrounded them. It is this assumption 
that, by their practice as much as by any specific precept, 
the Webbs expose and destroy. They show, in work after 
work, that the great mass of the supposed “laws” are 
laws only in the conventional and not in any scientific 
sense; that they arc, that is to say, associated strictly with 
Capitalism, and are unrealised deductions from it. Assume, 
if you can, another background; another general system; 
and your laws will assume a different shape. For them- 
selves, not only did they reject the “iron law of wages”: 
they rejected all the “iron laws,” and the whole apparatus 
of fatalism and inexorability by which the orthodox 
economists had sought to under-join their structure. Bit 
by bit, they brought about a great change, not fully recog- 
nised, and not credited to them. Their own practice was 
not to posit some other, and equally rigid background or 
system of their own. Far from that. They insisted on, 
and themselves loyally undertook, an interrogation, sus- 
tained, careful and disinterested, of all the facts they 
could lay hands on, of all sorts. They insisted on the 
admission of, and themselves loyally admitted, varying 
‘background’ hypotheses. By this practice they not only 
demonstrated, beyond future oblivion or obliteration, that 
economic science can no more be detached from the 
human beings who are at once its instruments and its 
ends than can medical science. They rendered another 
service to truth, equally significant. Economic writers, 
in the nineteen-thirties, arc, on the whole, less dogmatic 
than those of the nineties, enunciate their ‘laws’ in much 
more provisional form, remember ceteris paribus , and accept, 
in a word, the view that theirs is a relative and not an 


absolute science. For this result, thanks are mainly due 
to the Webbs. The steady pressure of their practice, 
even more than their intellectual modesty, has brought 
it about. 

It is not by accident but by intention that their descrip- 
tion of themselves is always that they are sociologists. 
The very latest of their published works — the fascinating 
volume in which “ after forty-five years of investigation 
into social institutions the authors publish, for the assistance 
of other students, a detailed account of the methods they 
have found successful” — is called Methods of Social Study . 
Of Social, not of Economic Study. Moreover, except 
for the series of volumes penned to advocate the proposals 
contained in the Minority Report of the Poor Law Com- 
mission, and A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth 
which are constructive Socialism: and The Decay of the 
Capitalist System , which is destructive Socialism (and unique, 
in being thus minatory and negative) the books which 
comprise the great body of their work are descriptive, 
rather than, in any sense, doctrinal. They are doctrinal 
only in so far as they are grounded in, and interpenetrated 
by, a rejection of commonly accepted doctrine: so com- 
monly accepted, indeed so universally taken for granted, 
when they began their work, that nobody noticed that 
it was doctrine at all. Of this common acceptance of 
Capitalist assumptions, their books have been profoundly 
subversive. Here were two students, equipped as were 
few, armed at every point with knowledge both of fact 
and of theory, trained and disciplined to the highest point, 
whose works, looking, to the casual eye, just like any 
other solid sociological treatises, ready to pass, on approval, 
into text-books, proved, when their content was reflected 
upon, to challenge orthodoxy at every point on the line; 
and to challenge it by no crude frontal assault but by 
an insistence on enquiring whether the things it took 


for granted really were things; whether its facts actually 
were facts, or mere notions, taken as given because never 
objectively and dispassionately scrutinised. They do 
scrutinise them, both objectively and dispassionately. 
Their originality consists in their complete power of divesting 
their eyes of the glass of habit which colours the vision 
of nearly everyone, without his being aware of it. They 
take nothing for granted. The great argument for 
Capitalism, that it exists, is to them, quite simply, no 
argument at all. 

This sapping and mining of the foundations of Capitalist 
economics, like this revelation that economics was, in 
fact, Capitalist economics, was the more effective because, 
until they wrote their two books on Socialism, in the 
period after the War, they promulgated no large-scale 
dispensation of their own. They implied Socialism, in 
every word they wrote, and no one who read their words 
was in any doubt as to what they meant by it; but they 
never waved any banners. They criticised current pre- 
sumptions, from a definite and clear point of view, which 
interpenetrates their historical descriptions and directs 
the logic of the subsequent analysis; but that point of 
view invariably appears as a deduction from facts. 

Rejection of the inspired or dialectical method, was 
as has already been noted, a natural impulse in the mental 
processes of both, before they met: collaboration sharpened 
this native aversion from large schematic generalisations, 
and the entire superstructure of Hegelian-Marxian ideology. 
They are not ideologists; nor are they doctrinaire. If 
they ever seem so, the reason is that their passion for order 
makes them prone to identifications and classifications. 
They never forget that economics is a human science; 
at the same time, they are apt to over-simplify these same 
humans, and to get them too easily into expressive categories. 
When it is a question of facts, and the ordering of those 


facts in syntheses, they are patient, painstaking, and 
entirely ready to face, interrogate, and admit any new 
fact that comes along. To opinions, they extend the 
same hospitality; they have always done so. Socialist 
opinions, like Capitalist opinions, have to defend them- 
selves on their merits, and on the basis of their correspondence 
with the facts, included in those facts being their human 
reference. This alert accessibility, this persistent relativity, 
has been there from the start. They have never, for 
example, heresy-hunted. This is not only due to their 
tolerance; it is part and parcel of the genuinely scientific 
spirit, which can and does wait. 

The background of their economics, therefore, is an 
unusually comprehensive and constantly growing army of 
facts, of all sorts. For facts, both are temperamentally 
greedy. By the time they came together, he was armed 
with an unequalled knowledge of history, and an unequalled 
familiarity with economic and sociological literature in 
English, French and German. He also knew a vast amount 
about the working of public institutions, from the Civil 
Service to the town council. He knew the mind of the 
urban worker; he knew the mind of the bourgeoisie . She 
complemented his experience, amazingly. She knew the 
personnel of the governing hierarchy, both in Government, 
opinion, and industry, intimately. She knew Trade 
Unionists and Co-operators, middlemen, artisans, and the 
captains of enterprise. He knew theoretically, she knew 
practically, the complicated world of modern finance: 
the intricate ramifications of the credit system, the technique 
of investment and of speculation. Their dense familiarity 
with “ social and economic tissue” constituted an unique 
equipment. Economics, of all branches of human study, 
is the least detachable from actual circumstances, the 
most dependent on authentic familiarity with the concrete 
content of the phrase “other things being equal.” Their 


economics, thanks to this firm grounding in the incessantly 
changing actual, has almost no axioms, and few “funda- 
mental” propositions, outside of the law of rent. 

Their basis was the work of the Utilitarians, and 
above all, of John Stuart Mill. Mill was his hero, in 
his youth. They have gone far beyond Mill, without 
ever wholly dispossessing themselves of his potent influence. 
Above all, they have gone beyond him in the interpreta- 
tion and exposition of the law of rent itself. Webb per- 
ceived, well ahead of any other modern economist, the 
relevance of rent, as a phenomenon running through all 
the forms of the application of mind to matter, of human 
labour of any kind, to material things, of any kind. He 
saw, of course, that rent appears in the processes of 
distribution as well as in the processes of what we call 
production, since there is no valid economic distinction 
between these two; man can move matter but not create 
it. He saw, that, throughout Capitalist society, there is, 
in every department, an appropriation and retention by 
individuals or groups of that surplus above the marginal 
return which is in no sense created by the efforts or the 
abstinence of the individual capitalists who thus appropriate 
it. Their appropriation of surplus product is, economically, 
theft. They have not made and could not make it: it 
is, essentially, the result of co-operative effort: it depends 
for its coming into being on that, and on the artificial 
prescription permitting an exclusive hold on certain parcels 
of the indispensable natural substratum which belongs, 
in its nature, to the community. This appropriation 
involves, in its turn, a gross maldistribution, vulgarising 
the few by excessive possession, and degrading the many 
by dispossession. It involves vast waste — economic waste, 
as well as social waste. Their Collectivism, their programme 
for the holding and control by organs representative of 
the community of the indispensable material substratum, 


and the running, by them, of the indispensable common 
services, was no theorem: it was part and parcel of the 
war against waste. They foresaw that the application 
of science, plus the use of intelligent, i.e. co-ordinated, 
organisation, promised, in the economic sphere, a vast 
increase in productivity. They wrote, for instance, in 
1920, that 

“There is good ground for expecting discovery in physical 
science to go forward by leaps and bounds, in a way that may 
presently transform all our dealings with forms of force and 
kinds of substance.” 

They also saw that this, under Capitalism, promised no 
necessary raising of the common level of comfort. 

Such raising of the common level is only possible in 
so far as rents, created in the last analysis by social effort, 
are socially owned. In this central view they have never 
varied: it is the kernel of their sociological conviction. 
As to the methods and forms of social ownership, however, 
their thought developed, as time went on, and as they took 
in the new facts of contemporary development, saw the 
relevance of the Trust and Combine on the one hand, and 
the march of voluntary associations on the other. So, while 
originally set in a bureaucratic mould, it became thoroughly 
democratic. This development is characteristic : they have, 
on methods, always been ready to use a “working hypo- 
thesis ” and never, as happens so often, become so attached 
to that hypothesis as to be blinded to changes it may require 
if it is to achieve the purpose that lies behind. For them, 
the major purpose is always clear; the world must be made 
into a place in which people — not some people but all — 
can live in freedom and in happiness. Any economic 
arrangement is but an instrument to that end: the waste 
on which they wage incessant war, is the waste of human 
life. The full transformation of society from an individualist- 
capitalist to a co-operative Socialist form must take time. 



Its complete achievement demands a moral as well as an 
economic change: a state of mind in which men will reject 
for themselves a standard of luxury purchased at the 
expense of the destitution of their fellows. In the steady 
development of this conscience, they believe: “We are not 
pessimists, since we hold that reason and good will will 
prevail .’ 5 At the same time, they hold — and have held, 
throughout their active career — that the establishment of a 
National Minimum, below which the standard of life of 
no citizen should be allowed to fall, could and should be 
brought about by ordinary constitutional means, and 
would, if so brought about, hasten the movement towards 
collective ownership and control, demanded on purely 
economic grounds. 

In their Socialism, the characteristic notes are their 
firm belief in evolution as against revolution — in other 
words, what was later to be called their “gradualism”; 
their reliance on collective action; and their steady faith 
in democracy. In so far as they are in the line of develop- 
ment suggested by Mr. Beer, they stand, of course, with 
Owen in so far as he, for working purposes, and they, for 
working purposes, regard men as creatures of their environ- 
ment; they, on the other hand, have, as they set out plainly 
in their History of Trade Unionism , no use for the Owenite, 
idyllic view of the State as the enemy to be attacked, 
captured, overthrown and superseded by the onset of the 
people, led, for the purpose, by some inspired Redeemer. 
Owen looked to a Redeemer: we call him a Dictator. 
They believe no more in the Redeemer-Dictator than they 
do in the Marxian theory of the class struggle; they believe 
in “reason and good will,” and see some form or other of 
democracy as its most convenient instrument. Starting 
from the fact of political democracy, they realised, at once, 
that political freedom must carry with it first, some degree 
of economic freedom if it is not a mere sham ; and second, 


social arrangements that give not the merely formal but 
the conscious consent of citizens to what is being done in 
their name by their representatives. 

Actually nearly thirty years of work were to lie behind 
them before their sociological studies assumed a directly 
political reference, although, during the whole time, they 
were concerned with the working out of democratic institu- 
tions. Instead, they were predominantly concerned with 
those voluntary associations of consumers and producers 
whose part in the life of the State was already important, 
and destined to become even more so; the Trade Unions 
and the Co-operative Societies; and with the activity — 
or inactivity — of the citizen in regard not to the governance 
of the nation as a whole, but to those intimate aspects of 
daily life which are controlled by local institutions. They 
in fact filled in the thick background of the world as it is, 
before they attempted to build it up as it might become. 

From this point of view, as well as from the other stand- 
point that interested them — that of practical sociology — 
very great significance attaches to the enormous enterprise 
on which they were constantly engaged, although with 
serious and important interruptions, from 1898 to 1929. 
This is The History of Local Government in England which, 
when completed, fills ten stout tomes. Here, they were 
pioneers, in more senses than one. In recognising what 
he called “local collective activity’ 5 as a “notable element 55 
in that “ever growing elaboration of organised common 
action 55 which is “the dominant characteristic of the social 
movements of the past three quarters of a century, 55 1 
Sidney Webb, even in 1909, when he wrote these words, 
was not pointing out something that everyone already 
knew. Far from that. To-day, it is true, everybody accepts 
the view — although sometimes with a groan — that “local 
government matters. 55 But it was not so, when the Webbs 

1 Towards Social Democracy? (Cambridge Modern History, 1909). 


began their work, either as sociologists or as administrators. 

When, returned from their travels in 1898, they 
settled down to the heroic task of writing the history and 
anatomising the functions, of ‘ 4 local collective activity” 
in England, they were preparing, as they knew, to chart a 
jungle. Their plan was as original in approach as it proved 
laborious and exacting in execution. About what was 
beginning to be called “Gas and Water Socialism,” some- 
thing was being learned, in pracdce, through the exploits 
of the London County Council and other local authorities; 
but in 1898 and even much later, its relevance was very 
far from being seized, even by politicians, even by pro- 
fessional economists. About the origins and history of 
English local government, next to nothing was known, by 
the ordinary student of history; it played no part in his 
text books. They say, with their usual modesty, in the 
Preface to the final pair of volumes which round off their 
monumental work on this subject, that they “have done 
their best in an almost untilled field.” As a matter of fact, 
of course, they not only tilled the field : they showed what 
tilling means. The investigation and research, to 
say nothing of the immense intellectual effort of planning, 
that lie behind these volumes, are almost terrifying to con- 
template. The work was begun in 1898; it was not until 
1906 that the first, and not until 1929 that the last, volume 
appeared. Prodigious as the toil of research, it was 
accomplished with a scholarly thoroughness and an 
accuracy that have only been challenged on small points 
by the experts; while those who know most have paid 
the warmest tributes to the manner in which the entire 
vast and intractable material has been moulded and 

Roughly, the scheme of this gigantic work involves a 
two-fold division. Four volumes are dedicated to the 
structure of Local Government in England — The Parish and 


the County , published in 1906; The Manor and the Borough , in 
two volumes, published in 1908; and Statutory Authorities 
for Special Purposes , published in 1922. Five bulky volumes 
describe the functions of local government. A small but 
illuminating study of Liquor Licensing in England , already 
referred to, was issued in 1907; in 1913 came The Story of 
the King's Highway , and in 1920, English Prisons under Local 
Government , with a lengthy preface by Bernard Shaw. The 
gap between 1908 and 1913 is explained by the absorption 
of the authors in the Poor Law, and the writing of the series 
of volumes covering the various sections of the famous 
Minority Report, and setting out their plans not only for 
the break-up of the Poor Law but for the constructive 
provision of a National Minimum. Between 1922 and 
1 927, again, they were busy with political matters, and 
their works on Capitalism and the alternative thereto. In 
1927, however, there appeared the first of the three masterly 
volumes in which the story of the functioning of local 
government is completed by the narrative covering the 
entire history and working of the English Poor Law . The 
first of these volumes deals with the Old Poor Law : then 
English Poor Law History — The Last Hundred Tears , in its first 
part carries the tale down to 1834: in its second, issued in 
1929, tells the story of the Royal Commission of 1905-9, 
and of the subsequent agitation: of the effect of the war 
on the whole situation: and of the practical “ break-up ’ 5 
accomplished by the Local Government Act of 1928. The 
general shape of the entire survey — of which one con- 
temporary reviewer truly said that it would necessitate the 
re-writing of English history, and another that it was more 
than worthy to be placed beside the work of the great 
continental writers — is clearly indicated in a paragraph in 
Statutory Authorities for Special Purposes , in which the authors 
sum up their conclusions as regards structure: 


* ‘ When we turned to the subject of local government, nearly a 
quarter of a century ago, our object was to describe the organisa- 
tion and working of a century ago, our object was to describe the 
organisation and working of the existing local government 
authorities, with a view to discovering how they could be im- 
proved. We realised from the outset that a merely statistical 
investigation of what was going on would tell us little or nothing 
of the standing conditions of disease or health in the social organ- 
isations that we were considering. We knew that in order to find 
the causes of their imperfections and the direction in which they 
could be improved, we had to study not only their present 
but their past; not merely what they were doing but how they 
had come to be doing it. Somewhat naively, we accepted as our 
starting point the beginning of the nineteenth century. But after 
a year’s work on the records, it became apparent to us that the 
local institutions of the first quarter of that century w r ere either 
in the last stages of decay or in the earliest years of infancy. 
We saw that it was impossible to appreciate the drastic innova- 
tions of 1832-36, and their subsequent developments, without 
going much further back. After some reconnoitring in the 
seventeenth century, we decided that the Revolution of 1689 
ranked in the evolution of English local government, as the 
beginning of a distinct era, which continued until the Reform 
Bill of 1832.” 

At the time of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1689, and 
arising out of it, there appeared, they discern, a new policy: 
in fact, one of the most important results of the dismissal 
of the Stuart dynasty was a “summary end to arbitrary 
interference with local liberties.” Any interference, in fact, 
became “arbitrary ”; and for more than a hundred years, 
the steady practice of Kings and parliaments, nay, their 
settled policy, was one of knowing nothing of what the 
local authorities were doing. There was an “anarchy 
of local autonomy,” and no system of local government 
whatsoever; indeed, the term “local government” does 
not come into existence until the nineteenth century. Such 
organisation as there was, was vocational in basis; but 
broadly it was true to say that, 


“throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth, and right into the 
nineteenth century, the greatest county personage or the humblest 
parishioner stood on his personal status, whatever that status was.” 

What lived on through this anarchy, were certain ancient 
principles, inherited from centuries before the 1689 
Revolution, and embodied in certain local institutions. 
Of these the most significant was a relic of feudalism, the 
“obligation to serve,” together with the system of vocational 
organisation, which carried with it the principle of self- 
election or co-option. Property — and this in the main, of 
course, meant landed property — was further held to be the 
indispensable qualification for the exercise of authority, 
and often as carrying a title to such exercise. The whole 
scene was dominated by property, by local customs, and 
by the common law. It was on this that there swept down 
the Industrial Revolution. They would, one guesses, have 
small patience with that modern view which seeks to prove 
that this revolution was not one. 

Hard to find, among the countless descriptions of the 
introduction of steam-power penned in one and a half 
centuries, a more illuminating picture of what it meant 
to the ordinary man and woman than that contained in 
the pages of Statutory Authorities for Special Purposes. Here 
is a book whose truly repulsive title ought never to have 
been tolerated, since it serves to lock away from many 
students a volume which, at any rate in its second half, is 
of revealing interest. Remarkable as is the swift and sure 
delineation of the “massing of men” that the New Power 
brought with it, still more impressive and more vivid is the 
terrifying account that follows of “the devastating torrent 
of Public Nuisances.” Those, indeed, with acute noses 
will find these pages hard to read, so violent is the assault 
upon the sense of smell delivered in them! After showing 
how the sum of changes effected in a quarter of a century 


shattered the old securities, and, for the working people, 
brought new dangers and new sufferings, they present the 
picture of the New Capitalists laying the foundations of 
Democracy, and breaking up the old static vocational basis 
of society. There follows a passage such as they often drop, 
which is a veritable searchlight on the 

“incompatibility between complete political democracy and the 
unrestrained exercise of property rights in everything that could 
possibly be made subject to private ownership.” 

This incompatibility was grasped by Cromwell and by 
Ireton in the debates in the Council of War at Reading in 
1647: but it was not so much as glimpsed by the framers 
of the Constitution of the United States of America; or by 
those French Revolutionists who 

“unhesitatingly assumed that an absolute right of private pro- 
perty without limits or qualifications, was actually implicit in the 
‘Rights of Man’ and in political citizenship.” 

In the general sketch that follows, they are scrupulously 
fair to the Benthamites, who 

“sought, as would now be said by the business man, to introduce 
into Government Departments the motives and methods of profit- 
making enterprise.” 

The Benthamites tended to over-intellectualise, but 

“No one who realises the state of things in 1833, when under 
the Reformed Parliament the Benthamites, for a few brief years, 
came into their own, can doubt the great public benefit, even 
with all their short-comings and defects, effected by the Com- 
missioners who enquired into the Poor Law, the Municipal 
Corporations, and the sanitary condition of the population; or 
the imperative necessity of some such central departments as 
they wished to see established to inspect, guide and control the 
local administration of Poor relief, public health, and municipal 
government generally.” 

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, with &11 lts 
defects, was, they say, more truly judged by Francis Place, 


who saw, as its outcome, “the whole country becoming 
eventually municipalised,” than by Tom Taylor. “A 
popular dramatist turned bureaucrat” (he was secretary 
to the Central Board of Health) 

“grappling with the Early Victorian stupidities of local officials, 
and the prejudices of the average sensual man, could hardly 
be expected to take an optimistic view of Local Government.” 

The Act, in truth, produced a “sweeping revolution, little 
noticed at the time.” Local Government was, by it, cut 
off from vocational organisation, with its industrial, political 
and religious exclusiveness, and its ruinous view that “the 
direction of any service should be vested in those who 
performed it:” and vested in elected bodies, so that the 
consumers of public services, who paid for them out of local 
taxes, were given the right to control those services through 
their representatives. Many evils remained. System was 
not yet to be. Democracy was woefully incomplete, so long 
as the property qualification was retained intact. But 

“With the one significant exception of the red thread of pro- 
perty qualification running through all forms of authority, which 
was retained intact, and, in some ways, even strengthened by the 
Reformed House of Commons, the barriers which had divided 
the English people into mutually exclusive groups were, in 1834- 
1 836, so far as Local Government was concerned, almost wholly 
broken down. In the government of his parish, his Poor Law 
Union, and his Borough, the undifferentiated citizen-consumer, 
electing whatever representative he chose, became, in effect, 
supreme. The vocational qualification, once the very basis of 
Manor and Borough, finds no place in the reorganised munici- 
pality. Less complete, but scarcely less significant, was the tacit 
abandonment of the barrier of sex.” 

On this they do not dwell, although it would be highly 
interesting to have them do so. He, of course, was, from 
the very first, a complete equalitarian, so far as women 
were concerned; her conversion was recent; but it was 


definite. This, anyhow, is one of the hundreds of significant 
points which they interweave into their survey. 

In the great range of ten volumes dedicated to the history 
and interpretation of our local government, the “peaks” 
are the second half of the volume entitled Statutory Authorities 
for Special Purposes , and the volumes devoted to the history 
of the Poor Law . Here, the last two volumes have the 
distinctness and the actuality that belong to a record of 
events in which the writers were personally engaged ; 
moreover, the material, inasmuch as they are here dealing 
with a single and separable branch of local government 
and one that is of immediate, even of political, relevance, 
is less unmanageable, more compact, much more easily 
shaped, than that of many of the companion volumes. As 
a piece of sustained analysis, the Poor Law books are 

In 1921, the Local Government series was broken 
by the appearance of one of the most significant of 
their books, The Consumers' Co-operative Movement. Its 
Preface so clearly sets out both the great importance the 
authors attach to this study, and the place it occupies in 
their work, that it is simplest to quote its words — 

“The reader will find in this book, not a history of the Co- 
operative Movement in Great Britain, but a descriptive analysis 
of its present position, with a survey of its relation to other 
manifestations of Democracy and of its possibilities for the future. 

“We have now been for thirty years investigating and des- 
cribing democratic institutions, and only in the twenty-ninth 
year 1 did we publish any volume dealing with national govern- 
ment or the Political State. We started at the opposite end, not 
only because the other manifestations of Democracy — in Trade 
Unionism and consumers’ Co-operation, and in the various 
developments of Local Government — had been relatively 
neglected by other writers on Political Science ; but also because, 
to us as Socialists, these other manifestations seemed actually 
of greater importance than the Political State itself. For we have 
1 1920. A Constitution for the British Socialist Commonwealth . 


always held that it is in this spontaneous undergrowth of social 
tissue, rather than in a further hypertrophy of the national 
government, that will be found, for the most part, the institutions 
destined to replace the Capitalist system.” 

The book does for the consumers’ associations what Industrial 
Democracy had done for those of the producers. Beatrice 
Potter had already written the history of the Co-operative 
movement, in a small book that has not been superseded, 
has been translated into every known language, and sells 
as though new. No need to do that work again. Here, 
in the first instance, they are engaged in describing, 
analysing, and at times, faithfully and frankly criticising, 
the achievements of the voluntary association of con- 
sumers that, in 1923, 4 ‘supplied to one seventh of the popu- 
lation half of their food stuffs and one tenth of their other 
household purchases.” Significant of their general approach, 
as of a quality in their minds allying them to Jeremy 
Bentham, is the passage of almost lyrical lift in which 
they set out the various functions of the Co-operative 
Wholesale Society, which, “like the Vatican itself is — at 
least relatively to the resources of the average local co- 
operative society — omniscient and omnipresent.” They 
describe the “Buyers’ Mart” held every Tuesday, in 

“The spectacle, hitherto ignored both by the economists and 
the magnates of Capitalist business, is one of the most remark- 
able in the world of commerce, because it is a gathering, not of 
profit-seekers trying to get the better of each other, but of 
business men who are, and feel themselves to be, officials en- 
gaged in different branches of a common public service, having 
only the common purpose of the maximum satisfaction of the 
consumer’s wants. The handsome sale room at Balloon Street is 
set with broad tables on which are displayed attractive exhibits 
of the wares likely to be in request, and of the novelties to be 
brought forward. The expert officers of each branch and sec- 
tion of the department are in attendance. To this weekly exhibi- 
tion there resort the managers and buyers, and sometimes the 


committee men, of the hundreds of Co-operative societies within 
reach of Manchester. At each recurring ‘season* there are 
similar displays in the Drapery and other departments. Here 
societies can obtain all the ‘information* that they need with 
regard to replenishing their stocks. Extraordinary as it may 
seem to the profit-making world, there is here no chaffering 
as to prices, no ‘beating-down,’ no attempt to make a clever bar- 
gain. There is, in fact, a genuine community of interest. The 
buyers can make their criticisms and complaints about past 
supplies. They find freely brought to their notice all possible 
alternatives. They are encouraged to offer their own suggestions 
as to what they understand their members to desire. The sub- 
stantial meal to which, in company with the C.W.S. departmental 
chief officials, they are invited in the excellently organised 
dining-room on the premises affords a further opportunity of 
the highest value for mutual consultation on an informal basis.” 

Everything here, up to the culmination in the substantial 
meal, is characteristic. For that meal the writers them- 
selves probably did not care: but they see its place in the 
scheme of things. 

Both in the emphasis they place on Co-operation, as 
a method for the organisation of consumers, and in the 
importance of the place which they assign to it, in co- 
ordination with the organisation of producers through 
the Unions, in the Socialist Commonwealth, they are 
here developing a point central in their constructive 
thinking ever since it was, with brilliant insight, set out 
in her History of the Co-operative Movement , and amplified 
in the address she gave to the Co-operative Congress in 1 892 . 
Neither Trade Unionism nor Co-operation, she then stated, 

“can achieve its full development without the loyal co-operation 
of the other. The proper relationship between Trade Unionism 
and Co-operation is, as it seems to me, that of an ideal marriage, 
in which each partner respects the individuality and assists the 
work of the other, whilst both cordially join forces to secure 
their common end — the Co-operative State.** 

This conception they now expand and work out in detail; 
expressing anew their opposition to control by the pro- 


ducers on Gild Socialist or any other lines, not only 
because the self-governing workshop has, in Britain, always 
failed, and must always fail: but on larger, philosophical 
grounds. To make the “ processes of production of useful 
commodities and services the basis of our social organisa- 
tion* ’ is, really, to allow the mind to be perverted by 
Capitalist error: subdued to what it works in. Work 
is not the end of life, but the means to it. 

4 'Equity demands that every adult without exception should 
put into the common stock of commodities and services at least 
the equivalent of what he consumes, in order that the world 
may not be the poorer for his presence.’ * 


“In any rationally organised community, this price should 
progressively diminish.” 

As for the part of time and effort devoted to “paying the 

“this must be determined not by what the producer choses, but 
by what the consumers desire.” 

Consumption is the pivot, the originating force, whether 
what is consumed is bread and butter or the higher pleasures. 
From this point of view, then, they look at the Co-operative 
Movement, and take it very seriously as “one of the principal 
elements in the State of Tomorrow.” In general indeed, 
their sense of the broad social significance of consumption 
is one of the keynotes of their work; it is from this point 
of view, as an exposition of this, that The Consumers' Co- 
operative Movement occupies so important a place in the 
great series of their published books. It is one that must 
be read and, in its latter part, will be read, with real 
mental stimulation. 

Easy reading they are not, however, any of them; much 
less easy, for instance, than the Trade Union books. The 
art of helping the student by establishing a compulsive 


grip on his attention is one they seem to lose, here, except 
in flashes in the Co-operative book: and never again 
fully achieve. True, the theme with which they grapple, 
in local government, is dry in itself and of an awkward 
shape; neither local government nor Co-operation is a 
topic that, of itself, attracts the average reader. The 
difficulty, nevertheless, is not due wholly to the topic 
nor to the reader. After all, to him, few topics could be 
less attractive, at the first blush, than an exploration into 
the obscure ramifications of Trade Union practice, which, 
in Industrial Democracy , are handled in chapters no one 
finds dull; on which the attention is held securely riveted, 
once it is captured. With their later works, the difficulty 
is not so much to read them, but to read them with sus- 
tained attention. The eye goes on, tranquilly perusing 
line after line, page after page, of regularly spaced print; 
suddenly, one realises that the mind has taken nothing 
in, one does not know for how long. It is not that one 
has sailed off into a dream; it is rather that, somehow, 
the words have passed over one like water, leaving no 
definite impress behind. As words, one has been aware 
of them, as they passed : but that is all. The experience is 
disquieting. One stops, to ask oneself what is wrong? 

This difficulty of attentive reading is genuine, and 
general. It applies, moreover, to the controversial books 
on Capitalism and Socialism that were to come later, 
as well as to the Local Government books, if not quite 
to the same degree. The explanation cannot lie, therefore, 
in the subject matter of either set of books; it is rather a 
function of the form in which they are presented; of the 
style developed by their authors. This style, as met with 
in Statutory Authorities and the others of that series, is in 
fact, the characteristic style which they were ever after- 
wards to use. In it, too, one finds the explanation of 
the otherwise strange fact that their later works have, 


to a large extent, failed of their full effect: failed, above 
all, in their full effect upon opinion. The stuff is there, 
but, for the majority of readers, it is not what the Americans 
call “available”; they just don’t get it: something has 
happened to the medium of presentation which makes 
it a non-conductor. There is a muffling and blurring 
of the edge of speech; the narrative is fluent, yet some- 
how viscous. One is reminded of that curiously blunted 
language in which the Reports of Commissions and Com- 
mittees, and of Government Departments, are composed. 
It would be more accurate, historically, to put this 
comparison the other end up : among other things 
they have impressed upon a world which, even at this 
date, does not fully recognise what it owes to them, is 
a certain form of architecture as applied to political and 
economic science; an architecture of expression, as well 
as an architecture of thinking. So thoroughly has this 
impression taken place that it would be, to-day, more 
accurate to say that Reports, etc., tend to be “written 
in Webb,” than to say that their style recalls that of an 
official document. The result, anyhow, is not wholly a 
fortunate one. “Webb,” at its most distinctive, is not 
really a good language. 

When one attempts to analyse it, one finds that the 
trouble is with the sentences, not with the words. Their 
words are excellent. An immense vocabulary waits upon 
their commands. They coin phrases with the most admir- 
able facility. For the particular noun and adjective, 
each of them, in single-handed writing, shows a keen 
sense; this they retain, for conjoint effectiveness. She 
has a special talent for psychological, he for institutional 
phrasing. One can never forget her “genteel surrep- 
titiousness” or “discriminating penuriousness”; or his 
“sectarian and unsectarian intolerance” and “adminis- 
trative nihilism.” True, these examples, which could 


be multiplied indefinitely, register accurately the general 
pattern of their phrasing, which runs into longish words, 
and has a marked generalising tinge. But they can always 
find the words and phrases to express just what they 

While their words and phrases have colour and indi- 
viduality, however, their sentences suffer from a uniformity 
of shape and structure. While they are cunning with nouns 
and adjectives, they treat the verb with marked unkindness. 
Take almost any sentence at random, and the verb will 
be found well-nigh buried under the other parts of speech: 
compelled to carry far too much in the way of dependent 
and explanatory clauses. It is always there; the grammar 
is above reproach; but it is overworked, and nearly always 
in the same way. Sometimes the long roll of the sentences 
achieves a sort of heavy eloquence; more often one feels 
crushed by the remorseless regularity of that roll. The 
pattern repeats itself; one sees yard after yard, coming 
off the loom, imposing in sheer weight and mass, but 
uninteresting in its sameness. The heavy sentences, then, 
eat up the lively phrases and the apt words; they are 
lost in the muffled texture of the whole. 

The partners tend to speak, and they always write 
naturally and inevitably in the editorial “we.” This 
is a habit that lends a definite authority to their pronounce- 
ments. The ample phraseology in which these pro- 
nouncements are clothed further tends to suggest that the 
corpus of opinion of persons of good sound sense is, in fact, 
being set out. The impact of their joint utterance has 
a formidable weight. But the advantage, like others, 
carries drawbacks with it. The dual mind is stronger 
than any single one. Its logical processes are more rigor- 
ously tested, and its judgments presented with less of 
individualistic angularity. On the other hand, the point 
of the dual pen is less sharp, the idiosyncrasy of the dual 


voice is less challenging. Character, that mysterious 
element in style, suffers a blurring. The inclination must 
always be, in joint writing, to press as much into a given 
sentence as it can be made to hold ; to make of it a port- 
manteau, accommodating and providing for points that 
have occurred to either, views seen from a slightly different 
angle by one or the other. So the sentences get longer 
and longer, and have the tired fall of something submitted 
to repeated drafting, emended and extended, with a quali- 
fying adjective tucked in here, an adverb there. This 
heavy reinforcement by adjectives and adverbs, and, 
very often, by clauses and parentheses, causes a clotting 
of the flow of living blood which is the essence of a vital 
style. The practice of dictation, like the extensive employ- 
ment of secretaries, must increase every inherent difficulty 
of doing, together, something like writing, whose very 
essence is personal. 

Whatever be the causes, the result is indubitable. Many 
readers lose sight of the logic of the argument, and fail 
to realise how masterly is the marshalling of the material 
into an ordered, moving stream, because the style, the 
medium of communication, is unattractive. Readers, at 
best, are frail and difficile ; the authors have not deigned 
to assist them by any concessions. Their prefaces are 
often tougher than the books that follow them ; their 
titles are unprepossessing; their volumes are formidable 
to look at and uncomfortable to handle. Although they 
have lived, and written, into a period which has witnessed 
transforming innovations and improvements in the entire 
technique of the printing, presentation and production 
of the written word, they have remained unaffected by 
this change in format, and to all appearance, serenely 
unaware of it. The uniform edition of their works is an 
eyesore in the shelves that contain it; and Mrs. Webb’s 
My Apprenticeship is perhaps the worst sinner in a row of 



sinners, since it is too large to stand by the side of its com- 
panions. All are both ungracious to the eye and unpleasing 
to the touch, and when opened they disclose pages on 
which good, though not attractive, type is set with the 
smallest concession to any visual sensibility. 

This has to be said, since it explains why readers find 
the Webbs hard to read; and why, therefore, the net 
effect of their writings has been less than it would have 
been, had they been more easily accessible. Unhappily, 
they were not able to repeat, from this point of view, 
what is the veritable triumph of the Trade Union books: 
that, in them, economic writing is easy and agreeable 
reading. There are passages, in their later works, of a 
sombre eloquence: but these passages hardly offset the 
general impression above described. It is an immense 
pity, for there is no one of these “unreadable” books that 
does not contain matter, both of fact and of argument, 
of insight and interpretation, worth a far greater effort 
than reading entails. They have given, generously, 
so many gifts through their writing — a fresh angle of 
approach, a method of study, a real illumination of subject 
matter, a new standard of disinterested thoroughness — 
that the greedy recipients want one more : the gift of 
easy enjoyment. They have to do without. 



The history of the Poor Law in England is divided into 
two well-marked epochs, so far as the nineteenth and 
the twentieth century are concerned, by two famous 
Royal Commissions. The Webbs have written the story 
of both, in terms that are likely to be definitive, in the 
last two volumes of their Local Government series. The 
second volume opens with the following paragraphs: 

“The Poor Law Enquiry Commission of 1832-1834 
arose out of the intolerable scandals of the then existing 
state of things; and its revolutionary proposals were the 
outcome of a whole generation of abstract reasoning upon 
the misdeeds of local administrators. The active members 
of the Commission and their staff of investigators all 
belonged to the then dominant school of thought; and 
the evidence was collected and arranged so as to bring 
into overwhelming prominence certain prejudged con- 
clusions. The Report was immediately accepted by enlight- 
ened opinion; and, within a few months of publication 
its recommendations were substantially embodied in an 
Act of Parliament. 

“The Royal Commission on the Poor Law and the 
Unemployed which the Conservative Government appointed 
in December 1905, was in every one of these features 
the exact antithesis to its famous predecessor. It was 
not the outcome of any widespread or long-continued 
agitation against the existing system of Poor Relief. There 



had been no breakdown in the administration of the 
Boards of Guardians, which had become, on the contrary, 
under the continued supervision of the Local Government 
Board, steadily more efficient and more humane. The 
‘Principles of 1834’ were assumed to be in operation; 
and they were professedly endorsed by the dominant 
philosophy and administrative experience of the time. 
Criticism there was, but it came from conflicting schools 
of thought; and, owing to the consequent ‘cancelling out/ 
it had produced little effect upon public opinion. The 
personnel of the new Commission differed radically from 
that of its predecessor. For good or evil, the score of 
persons appointed to be Royal Commissioners in 1905 
were far from homogeneous in opinion. Although the 
majority of them represented the views of those who 
approved of the existing order, they found themselves 
faced by able critics of the very basis of the Poor Law 
Amendment Act of 1834. Thus the evidence collected 
by the Commissioners themselves, and by the staff of 
expert investigators whom they appointed, however accurate 
and comprehensive it might be, was used to support con- 
clusions based on conflicting views of social expediency. 
The Majority and the Minority Reports were both elaborate 
documents, alike more comprehensive in their scope and 
in their recommendations than the unanimous Report 
of 1834; they had a record sale, and attracted wide-spread 
attention; but in spite of a large measure of agreement 
in their proposals they ranged those who were interested 
in social reconstruction in two opposing camps. After 
many promises on the part of successive Cabinets, in the 
course of a couple of decades, neither the one Report 
nor the other has been embodied in legislation: and even 
the changes which the Majority and Minority alike advocated 
long failed to pass into law. The Royal Commission of 
1 905-9 was, in fact, from a constructive standpoint, as 



big a failure as the Royal Commission of 1832-34 was a 
success. What it achieved was a couple of discoveries 
which, like many other new truths, discredited and dis- 
integrated existing institutions, without providing any 
alternative that the nation, at the moment found practicable. 
The two discoveries were (1) that the ‘Principles of 1834’ 
had been, almost unawares, gradually abandoned in 
practice, by the administration of successive Governments, 
whether Conservative or Liberal; and (2) that there had 
grown up, during the preceding half century, an array 
of competing public services which were aiming, not at 
the prevention of pauperism, but at the prevention of 
the various types of destitution out of which pauperism 

This account gives, with incomparable clearness, and 
distinguished impartiality, a bird’s eye view of the effort 
that not only occupied the Webbs between 1905 and 
1909, but carried them, in 1909, into an entirely new 
arena of work. From 1905 to the middle of 1912, they 
were occupied, primarily, with what, for convenience, 
one may call the Poor Law. They were doing all sorts of 
other things, as well; their Local Government books were 
under way: he was still until 1910 an active member of 
the London County Council. In 1903 he had been made 
a member of the Royal Commission set up, at the eleventh 
hour, by Mr. Balfour’s Government, to review Trade 
Union law in the light of the Taff Vale Judgment. In 
that year, too, as in the years that followed it, he served 
on a Departmental Committee on Technical Education 
on another on Agricultural Settlement and Emigration, 
and on yet another on the Territorial Army. In 1907, 
again, he was a member of the Committee which devised 
the plans for the Census of Production. All this, however 
was secondary; their major interest was in the Poor Law. 


The Commission of 1905-9, of which Mrs. Webb was 
a member — indeed, the member, both so far as the Com- 
mission, at the time, and the public, then, and later, were 
concerned — was set up by Mr. Balfour on the eve of the 
General Election of 1906, which swept his Party out of 
power for the next sixteen years. The reason for its 
appointment, as its historians point out, was certainly 
not any general interest in, or even dissatisfaction with, 
the Poor Laws. There was no such general interest, at 
the time. On the other hand, that great social problem 
had begun to take menacing forms which we recognise 
as the characteristic challenging question-mark to our 
existing economic order. Unemployment was not, in 
1905, as serious as it was to become, by the time that 
the Commission reported, but it was serious enough to 
have forced the Balfour Government to pass the Unem- 
ployed Workman Act of 1905, enabling local authorities 
to set up relief works. This policy alarmed the orthodox, 
and not least those who sensed the Webb mind behind 
Labour pressure in the House of Commons. 

There were not a few, inside parliament and out, 
who believed that that same mind had had no small 
share in bringing about the appointment of the Royal 
Commission. Arthur Balfour was an intimate in Grosvenor 
Road : Gerald Balfour, his brother, was in the key position, 
as President of the Local Government Board: and he, 
too had had long talks there. Those who knew, or guessed, 
the history of the origins of the Education Acts of 1902-3, 
now saw the same tactic at work. It was no secret that 
the partners, on any great social question, desired nothing 
so much as a “ grand inquisition” into “the facts.” If 
it could be public, so much the better. If the enemy 
could be made to do it, better still. No enquiry could 
reveal so many facts of the kind which, as Charles Booth’s 
famous Enquiry proved, create and mould opinion, as 



an enquiry into the Poor Laws and Unemployment. Such 
an enquiry must, inevitably, become an enquiry into the 
immense progress of collective social provision, through 
the new Health, Education and other services, on the 
one hand ; and into poverty and its causation, on the other. 
Inevitability was, anyhow, provided for, no matter how 
strong the efforts to avert it, when one of the partners 
was put on the Commission. 

The opportunity made, they knew how to use it, and 
did use it to the full. Mrs. Webb, on the Commission, 
Sidney behind the scenes, threw all their formidable 
powers and talents into a congenial task. She was, at this 
stage, at the very height of her powers. There were very 
able persons on the Commission, which included among 
its members Sir Samuel Provis, of the Local Government 
Board: Mr. F. H. Bentham, an exceedingly experienced 
Poor Law Guardian; Charles Booth; Professor L. R. Phelps 
of Oxford; and C. S. Loch, Secretary of the Charity 
Organisation Society: but not one who could compare 
with her in swiftness of mind, resourcefulness, imagination 
and that higher kind of unscrupulousness which belongs 
to nearly every effective, driving personality. In range 
and scope of knowledge : in intellectual grasp and pounce : 
above all, in drive of will, she surpassed every one of 
them. She was, moreover, the one member of the Com- 
mission who, knowing exactly what she wanted to get 
out of it, made it her first concern, and never relaxed 
for an instant. Tirelessly, she was on the watch, ready 
to spring, to take an inch if given an ell. With consummate 
skill, she led witnesses on to giving her the answers she 
wanted either to support her case or to discredit their 
own. Nor was she content with witnesses: she successfully 
insisted that the Commission must organise special inves- 
tigations. On any point on which she could not convince, 
coax, or bully the Commission to act, she set research 


officers of her own to work. The Chairman — Lord George 
Hamilton — was snowed under by her Memoranda. Mem- 
bers and witnesses were “ nobbled. 55 They were taken 
to lunch or dine at Grosvenor Road, where points they 
had not thought of were put to them. 

Most illuminating, on her methods of work and of 
persuasion, or where persuasion failed, of stampede, are 
the notes from her Diary at the time, quoted in English 
Poor Law History , volume II. (The notes which are not 
there quoted would make still more exhilarating reading, 
no doubt.) From the first she says, it was clear to her 
that a head-on collision with their old friend John Burns, 
whom Campbell-Bannerman had made President of the 
Local Government Board, had got to be faced. He was 
in the hands of his officials. Four of the biggest of those 
officials were on the Commission. J. S. Davy, the arch- 
enemy, was not; but his evidence, taken early and occupying 
several days, was a forthright re-assertion of the “ principles 
of 1834.” The first sitting of the Commission took place 
in December 1905; by February, she is noting that 

“ Charles Booth blames me for having raised the hostility of 
the L.G.B. He may be right. . . . On the other hand, if one 
begins by being disagreeable, one may come in the end to a 
better bargain.’ * 

At this point, she had just had a fracas with Sir Samuel 
Provis. A month later, she had, “a most friendly chat, 
and he comes to dine to meet a carefully selected party 
on Wednesday.” She goes on, in the same entry, to say, 
“I no longer find intercourse with my fellow Commissioners 

In May, she is annoyed again; the Commission is 

“ lumbering along. . . . There is lack of method and discipline, 
with which some of us get impatient; and I sometimes offend 
by my easy-going ways — intervening when I ought to hold my 



peace. ‘You did not behave nicely to-day/ said Lord George 
Hamilton, in kindly reproof. ‘You should not have referred 
to current politics.’ So I thanked him warmly for the hint, and 
I promised to be ‘seen and not heard’ in future. I find it so 
difficult to be ‘official’ in manner. However, I really will try. 
Dignified silence I will set before me, except when the public 
good requires me to come forward. Ah! how hard it is for a 
quick-witted and somewhat vain woman to be discreet and 
accurate. One can manage to be both in the written word — 
but the ‘clash of tongues’ drives both discretion and accuracy 

This was particularly apt to happen between her and 
C. S. Loch; and there were some lively passages. By 
June, after recording an instance, one among many, in 
which her cross-examination caused one or more of her 
colleagues to lose their tempers, she commends her own 
action on the ground that “Those Commissioners who 
have been sufficiently pertinacious have run away with 
the Commission.” In July, she describes a field-day, on 
future procedure, at which she 

“confined my effort to keeping open for further consideration 
questions which he (Lord George) or the Commission as a whole 
wished closed: Old Age Pensions; the condition of the 200,000 
children who are receiving Out Door Relief; the administration 
of relief by Boards of Guardians; and, more important than 
all, the relation of Poor Law Medical Treatment to Public 

On this there follows an entry (July 1906) at once so inter- 
esting and so typical that it must be quoted, as it stands — 

“This is a new hare that I have recently started. In listening 
to the evidence brought by the C.O.S. members in favour of 
restricting medical relief to the technically destitute, it suddenly 
flashed across my mind that what we had to do was to adopt the 
exactly contrary attitude, and make medical inspection and 
medical treatment compulsory on all sick persons — to treat ill- 
ness, in fact, as a Public Nuisance to be suppressed in the interests 
of the community. At once I began to cross-examine on this 
assumption, bringing out the existing conflict between the Poor 


Law and Public Health authorities, and making the unfortunate 
Poor Law witnesses say that they were in favour of the Public 
Health attitude! Of course Sidney supplied me with some 
instances, and I hurried off to consult M.O.H.’s, Dr. X, Dr. Y 
(Infant Mortality expert). As luck would have it, Dr. Z had to 
give evidence, and was puzzled to know what to talk about. He 
dined here, and I brought out my instances of conflict. In the 
witness-box, he made this conflict part of his thesis, though taking 
the Poor Law attitude, and complaining of the P.H. authorities’ 
pauperising tendencies. With S’s help, I drew up a memorandum 
emphasising all my points. ... I am elaborating an enquiry 
of my own — with funds supplied by Charlotte Shaw (Mrs. Ber- 
nard Shaw) : so I merely said I should, in the course of the next 
six months, present the Commission with a further memorandum. 
‘You might elaborate with a few more details the one you have 
already presented,’ said Lord George, in a frightened way. And 
so it was left. At present I am engaged in finding a medical 
woman to undertake the enquiry, and on rousing the interest of 
M.O.H.’s throughout the country. 

“ Meanwhile, despairing of any action on the part of the Com- 
mission, I have undertaken, unknown to them, an investigation 
into the administration of the Boards of Guardians. I shall put 
Mrs. Spencer on to analyse the documents that are pouring in to 
me by every post; and Miss Bulkeley shall go through minutes. 
I therefore look forward to at least three memos, handed in 
by me — (i) Central Policy, (2) The Relation of Poor Law 
Medical Relief to Public Health, (3) Administration of Relief 
by Boards of Guardians, as well as the Report of the Special 
Investigators on the Relation of Bad Conditions of Employment 
to Pauperism. 

“ On these documents I shall base my report.” 

While busy in thus setting out lines of her own, indepen- 
dent of the Commission, and expecting, as she says later, 
to get into “hot water” over the means she was taking 
to get facts, one of the most valuable services she performed 
as a member was her insistence on the appointment of 
Special Investigators. Their Reports constitute, in fact, the 
most permanently valuable part of the bulky volumes 
containing the Reports, the Evidence and the Appendices 
to the Royal Commission of 1905-9. The Local Govern- 
ment Board Officials strove hard to prevent the appointment 



of any of these “roving commissions she beat them. The 
investigators sent out by the Commission were men and 
women selected “for a task of genuine investigation, inde- 
pendent of their social and political opinions.” They 
were most of them young, exceedingly keen, and highly 
competent : their reports had extensive personal observation 
as well as statistics and documents behind them. These 
reports proved in many cases, revolutionary; for the individ- 
uals who made them, the work, in nearly every case, gave 
a decisive turn both to their opinions and to their careers. 
Among them were Tom Jones, Cyril Jackson, Ethel Williams, 
Rose Squire, Constance Williams, Marion Phillips, Arthur 
Steel-Maitland, and Dr. J. McVail. The subject of the 
first enquiry was suggested by the Charity Organisation 
Society members, (C. S. Loch, Mrs. Bosanquet, Octavia 
Hill and Hancock Nunn) : the effect of Out-Door Relief 
on Wages and the Conditions of Employment. This enquiry 
lasted two years, and covered the whole country. Its result 
surprised those who had pressed for the investigation, since 
it was to the effect that since there was practically no 
systematic Out-Door Relief to men, the notion of a “rate 
in aid of wages,” stressed by J. S. Davy, and the C.O.S., 
fell to the ground. The section on women’s wages in London 
was particularly impressive. 

“Our investigation . . . has convinced us that, whilst Out- 
Relief aggravates most evils, it is, in itself, a relatively unim- 
portant influence in comparison with other forces at work; and 
that its withdrawal would hardly raise the level of women’s 
wages in London.” 

Later, the investigators drive their conclusion home — 

“The primary causes of ‘sweating’ are the poverty, domestic 
afflictions, and physical infirmities of the workers, leading to 
industrial inefficiency, and an incapacity to earn a normal wage. 
Low wages in turn perpetuate low earning power, and a vicious 
circle is established. The rates paid are of secondary importance, 
compared with these primary disabilities.” 


The Enquiry into the environmental causes of destitution, 
like that by Dr. John McVail into medical relief, drives the 
same lesson home. In January 1907, Mrs. Webb notes in 
her Diary that 

“The reports of the Special Investigators are all pointing away 
from bad administration as the cause of pauperism, and towards 
bad conditions among large classes of the population as the over- 
whelmingly important factor: conditions which, if we are to 
check destitution, must be changed. If we do not see to it that 
destitution is checked, it is, thanks to Democracy, too late in the 
day to check pauperism. That is the little lesson the C.O.S. w r ill 
have to learn by this Commission.” 

By July 1906, Mrs. Webb was already balancing the 
question whether she should contemplate writing a separate 
Report, or try to leaven the lump. She notes then — 

“My relations with my fellow Commissioners are now quite 
pleasant. I am completely detached from them, and yet on 
most agreeable terms. I just take my own line, attending for 
just as long as it suits me, cross-examining witnesses to bring 
out points and conducting the enquiries that I think important 
independent of the Commission’s w ork. The lines of reform, both 
in constitution and policy, are gradually unfolding themselves 
to me. Whether I shall embody them in a Report of my own, 
or give up part of my w ay in order to bring the whole Commission 
along, will be a question of expediency and delicate negotiation, 
about which nothing can at present be foreseen.” 

Early in 1908, Charles Booth was, very unfortunately, 
compelled, by reasons of health, to retire from the work of 
the Commission. His influence might have been, otherwise, 
very effective in bringing the “doubtfuls 5 ’ among the 
Commissioners over to his side. 

In the battle of principles on the Report Mrs. Webb 
succeeded in detaching to wholehearted support of her 
own line only three of her colleagues. Indeed since 
George Lansbury and F. H. Chandler were with her from 
the start, her one genuine convert was Prebendary Russell 
Wakefield, later Dean of Norwich, and now Bishop of 



Birmingham. It was over the names of these four that, in 
1909, the Minority Report was presented: a Report so 
famous that for two decades after its presentation, the 
term “Minority Report” was always taken to mean this 
particular document. 

Majority and Minority Reports alike demanded the 
abolition of Boards of Guardians, Union areas, and 
General Mixed Workhouses: in fact, the abolition of the 
entire structure erected by the Poor Law Commissioners 
of 1834 for the purpose of deterrence. Deterrence both 
Reports rejected. While they agreed in demolition, however, 
they differed in construction. The cardinal point of separ- 
ation lay in the fact that whereas the Majority, in order 
to maintain “unity in relief,” proposed to set up ad hoc 
Public Assistance Committees for that purpose, the Minority 
said, in effect, that since destitution is a symptom of social 
disease, which ought to be prevented at its root, what is 
required is a break-up of the Poor Law, not its substitution. 
Its signatories called for the transference of various cate- 
gories of non-able-bodied persons in need to the modern, 
specialised authorities already in existence. Thus, the sick 
should go to the Public Health Committee, the children 
to the Education Committee, the mentally deficient to 
the Asylums Committee, and the aged to the Pensions 
Committee of the various local authorities. At the same time, 
a Registrar of Public Assistance was to be set up for the 
purpose of financial co-ordination as between the different 
committees and any voluntary agencies. 

Drastic divergence appears in the treatment of the 
able-bodied. There the Minority Report boldly stated 
that only the National Government could effect the far- 
reaching schemes of prevention and of curative treatment 
that were required. The unemployed belonged to very 
differing categories, requiring different treatment. In- 
surance; decasualisation ; dovetailing of seasonal employ- 


great propaganda campaign in favour of the proposals 
the Minority. In his younger days, as has been describe 
Sidney had been a highly effective propagandist; sin 
marriage, the field, if not the aim, for the influencing 
opinion had changed; they worked on committees, in tl 
study, and behind the scenes. Now, they came right ox 
into the open and conducted, on a grand scale, and with a 
the limelight possible turned on to them, a campaign c 
publicity, advertisement and pressure, at once splendidl 
organised, and highly spectacular. They personally ad 
dressed hundreds of meetings, large and small, and mos 
of them very large, up and down the country. They organ 
ised Conferences, national and regional. They ran Summe: 
Schools. They set up branches and committees. The] 
gathered up an army of highly enthusiastic volunteers, a; 
well as an expert paid staff. They ran a newspaper and a 
large office. They used their unrivalled social and political 
connexions to the full, to rope in influential support, and 
get hold of resounding names. They did in fact rope in 
some very noteworthy people, from Winston Churchill 
to Rupert Brooke. Winston presided over a great meeting 
in the St. James’s Hall; Rupert Brooke and Ashley Dukes 
were among those who delivered leaflets from bicycles in 
rural areas. Other equally surprising people did other 
kinds of propaganda. While Sidney talked to bankers 
and to business men, Beatrice, equipped with new clothes, 
had society ladies to luncheon. They were ubiquitous and 
untiring. They spoke more and more eloquently. They 
wrote more and more assiduously. 

An imposing National Committee for the Break-up of 
the Poor Laws was brought into existence, with Russell 
Wakefield (who had become Dean of Norwich) as Chair- 
man, Mrs. Webb as Secretary, and a most impressive array 
of celebrities — what are called by propagandists “national 
figures” — among its members. According to the classifica- 



tion used in campaign literature, they were set out in groups. 
Thus, “ Literature” was represented by G. K. Chesterton, 
Beatrice Harraden, Sidney Low, John Masefield, Graham 
Wallas, Sarah Grand, Hugh de Selincourt, Richard 
Whiteing and Maurice Hewlett; “Learning” by Sir Oliver 
Lodge, Professor L. T. Hobhouse, Professor James Seth, 
Sir Frederick Pollock, Professor A. F. Pollard, G. Lowes 
Dickinson and Professor Gilbert Murray. “The Drama” 
sent Beerbohm Tree, Forbes-Robertson and Granville 
Barker; “Economics” Professors D. H. Macgregor, H. 
Stanley Jevons and A. L. Bowley, J. A. Hobson, L. G. 
Chiozza-Money, W. Pember Reeves and Sidney Webb. 
“Religion” sent the Deans of Norwich, Durham and 
Worcester, Canon Scott Holland, Archdeacon Sinclair, 
Monsignor Brown, Monsignor Parkinson, the Rev. R. J. 
Campbell and the Rev. Silvester Horne, M.P. Nearly 
every Trade Union was there; nearly every Labour M.P. 
was a member of the organisation, while G. H. Roberts, 
J. A. Seddon, George Barnes and Philip Snowden figured 
on the National Committee, as did Conservative M.P.’s 
like J. W. Hills, J. Henniker-Heaton, and Gilbert Parker, 
and Liberals like Rufus Isaacs, John Simon and Alfred 
Mond. The organisation, from the start and to the end, 
was strictly non-party, and by January 1911, the registered 
membership was over twenty thousand. 

Not all, of course, but, in fact, a surprising number 
of the stars thick-set in the firmament of the National 
Committee were made to work by the Secretary, and work 
hard. A great many of them either spoke themselves, or 
presided over meetings. Thus, at the meetings, held in 
the spring of 1910 in the St. James’s Hall, in London, at 
which Mr. and Mrs. Webb spoke alternately, they had, as 
Chairmen, Gilbert Murray, Sir Frederick Pollock, Philip 
Snowden, Winston Churchill, Bernard Shaw and Oliver 
Lodge. The hall was packed; in the overcrowded audi- 



ences were “a large number of well-known people, highly 
placed officials, and even members of the Government/ 
The members of the National Committee, great and small 
wrote articles and letters to the Press; they agitated, they 
talked, they worried candidates and M.P.’s; they lobbied 
assiduously, and with a holy zeal. George Lansbury and 
the Dean of Norwich, together with C. M. Lloyd, appointed 
as chief organiser, and Clifford Sharp, editor of the monthly 
paper founded in 1910, travelled, as did the Webbs them- 
selves, incessantly from one end of the country to the other, 
addressing large meetings : meetings soon numbered 
between thirty and forty a week. Ranged behind the big 
names was an army of lesser folk, who worked very hard 
indeed, with a joyous enthusiasm and, often, a passion of 
hero or heroine worship. The heavy drudgery of the 
Central Office — at first housed austerely in a basement in 
Clement’s Inn, later on a grand scale at 37 Norfolk Street, 
Strand — as well as of the local offices in the provinces, was 
done by eager volunteers. Young women and young 
men from the Universities would spend hour after hour, day 
after day, in folding and addressing circulars, or acting as 
stewards and collectors at meetings, to be amply rewarded 
by a brilliant if rather vague smile from the General Secre- 
tary when she looked in, in the course of the day. 

Destitution in fact, became “the thing” in 1910; 
talk about it penetrated even into the most fashionable 
circles. The Webbs became popular figures. With immense 
energy and unflagging enthusiasm, they threw themselves 
into a veritable furnace of work of a kind that to her at 
anyrate was congenial. A certain flame-like quality in 
her here had play, and she knew how to communicate 
something of it to others. Once again, too, the combination 
was ideal. If she lit the torch and waved it with thrilled 
and thrilling gestures, his quiet and much more factual 
presentation lent a rare authority to the case, which had 



all the advantages of strong contrast. He moreover, 
suggested, when he spoke, a degree of lucid and objective 
impartiality about which she, often, did not bother. On 
the organisation side, again, he was supremely useful: a 
mine of suggestions, and a living principle of order. Any- 
how, the thing “went.” 

The Webbs showed great skill in keeping their members 
up to the mark by giving them something to do. The 
columns of The Crusade y their monthly paper, bristle with 
suggestions. Members can push The Crusade : they can sell 
literature (“the difference between the trade terms and 
sale prices is quite sufficient or rather more than sufficient 
to cover the personal expenses incidental to such work”); 
they can collect facts. 

“The Minority Report is full from cover to cover of instances of 
the failure of the Poor Law to cope with destitution on modern 
and scientific lines. But in order to keep our propaganda up-to- 
date, we want to know what is happening not in 1907 and 1908 
but in 1910.” 

To help in this, a Research Department was set up and 
staffed at 37 Norfolk Street. Here the Head Office was a 
constant buzz of activity; lines were out in all directions. 
A genuine National Movement seemed to be under way. 
Mrs. Webb’s Diary gives a picture: 

“As I sat in my office this morning — three rooms crowded with 
volunteers — Bentham (a member of the Majority of the Com- 
mission) was announced. I gave him the warmest welcome, in- 
troduced Colegate (the secretary) to him, and asked him ‘What 
we could do for him? > He seemed almost dazed with the bustle 
of the office. T wanted to see your literature/ he said. ‘You 
seem busy here as if it were a General Election.’ ‘Perhaps it is* 
I laughingly replied. ‘ I wish we had somebody to organise our 
side, like you; no member of the Majority cares enough about it.’ ” 

This was in July 1910. Perhaps stimulated by Bentham’s 
visit, the Majority did get an organisation for the promotion 
of their views into being. After that, the fun became more 


fast and furious than ever, since now debates and a rea 
fight could be staged. 

At the first Annual Meeting of the National Committee, 
it was decided to change its name ; instead of being dedicated 
to the Break-up of the Poor Law, it was to become an organ 
for “The Prevention of Destitution.” In fact 

“within half a year, at the beginning of 1910, it became clear to 
the propagandists of the Minority Report that the frontal attack 
on the existence of the Boards of Guardians, bound up with so 
ancient an institution as the “relief” of destitution, was, in view 
of the prepossessions of the Liberal Cabinet of the time, unlikely 
to achieve any success in the political field. More effective results 
might be obtained, in the long run, by promoting, through an 
unsectarian organisation, the growth of development of the 
various parts of the Framework of Prevention.” 1 

If these reasons for the change of name were clear enough 
in the minds of its authors, the change in itself registered 
the fact that the more ardent of the supporters of the 
proposals of the Minority Report were claiming for them, 
more and more insistently, the efficacy of a complete scheme 
of social reconstruction, through which poverty could be 
wiped out. Nor, on the platform, was this panacea attitude 
always avoided by Mrs. Webb, although it was never taken 
by him. She has a great platform personality. Her pic- 
turesque appearance, her penetrating voice, her vivid 
manner, her rich flow of words, her ardent conviction — all 
contributed to give her a real sway over large audiences; 
and she was not immune from the exaggerations into which 
successful speakers are apt to fail. 

Anyhow, during 1910, and into 1911, the tide of work 
and of apparent success rolled on. The capture of the 
Union, both at Cambridge and at Oxford, was typical of 
what was happening. They got the young, to a very large 
extent. The membership of the National Committee 
mounted; Scottish and Welsh National Committees were 

1 English Poor Law History, p. 721. 



ranged behind the parent body; the number of lectures 
and meetings, conferences and schools, rose : meetings were 
going on at the rate of ten to twelve a day. Between 
October 1910 and February 1911, Mr. and Mrs. Webb 
addressed more than a hundred meetings, including special 
courses of lectures in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, 
Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and London; the London 
meetings being at the Caxton Hall, with C. F. G. Masterman, 
Sydney Holland, Granville Barker, and Maurice Hewlett 
as chairmen. Their personal heroism may be gauged by a 
note in The Crusade recording that 

“A special feature was the half-hour receptions before the meet- 
ings, which enabled Mr. and Mrs. Webb to meet and converse 
with a number of members and of members’ friends.” 

In the summer of 1911, a four-day National Conference on 
the Prevention of Destitution was held in London, under 
the presidency of the Lord Mayor, and attended by over a 
thousand delegates. There were too many delegates for 
their comfort, since London happened to be in the middle 
of a heat-wave! Nevertheless, they sat, packed in the 
various rooms of the Caxton Hall, listening to expert papers 
and more or less expert discussion on specific aspects of 
the problem. The proceedings were enlivened by a great 
public meeting at the Albert Hall, which again was packed, 
with speeches by Arthur Balfour, Sir John Simon (Attorney- 
General at the time) and Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, the 
leader of the Labour Party. The Conference was thor- 
oughly non-party in character, nor did either Mr. or Mrs. 
Webb appear among the speakers at it. 

After this, in the middle of June, they sailed from Liver- 
pool for Canada, whence they crossed to Japan, travelling 
home via China, Singapore and India. Of their experiences, 
which included an escape from Peking in the last train to 
leave that city: an escape rendered possible by the fact 


that the engine-driver was an Englishman, and recognised 
them : they wrote long descriptive accounts for The Crusade . 

In determining to go on this journey, they expressed, 
plainly enough, their recognition of what, under all the 
apparent glow of success and achievement, was really 
happening. They knew, despite the great publicity they 
had organised, and the imposing public sentiment they had 
got ranged behind them, that the agitation was, in fact, at 
a dead-end. It still looked very powerful: but it had come 
up against forces too strong for it. Political forces. They 
were not tilting at one specific grievance, such as could be 
removed, if public opinion demanded it, by a simple act. 
Their programme was essentially a large scale constructive 
one; it could only be realised through legislation, and 
legislation of a comprehensive and far reaching character. 
Such legislation could only issue from a Government. 

True, they had, within the first six months of the 
campaign, not only got a parliamentary Bill drafted 
by a rising young Socialist barrister, Mr. H. H. Slesser, 
but had secured its Second Reading debate. That debate, 
however, although The Crusade did its best to be cheerful 
about it, was of a profoundly discouraging character, from 
the point of view of Governmental action. True, the 
Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, and the Leader of the 
Opposition, Mr. Balfour, both spoke: and Mr. Balfour, in 
the freedom of Opposition, showed “a real comprehension 
of the essential features of the problem.” More significant 
is the comment on Mr. Asquith’s remarks. 4 ‘Mr. Asquith 
was hampered by the fact that he had the President of the 
Local Government Board (Mr. John Burns) seated beside 
him.” In the Liberal Government, the key man, from 
their point of view, was John Burns: and John Burns’ 
hostility had never been concealed. Had not Mrs. Webb, 
on the Commission, faced a “head-on collision” with him, 
from the start? She had had her fun: he, now, was having 



his. If, for a time, they “collared” Winston Churchill, 
he was no “stayer”: on Lloyd George, who was, by now, 
visibly, and very rapidly rising to be the dominant figure 
in the Cabinet, above all over the entire range of domestic 
issues, they never had any influence. His mind was moving 
in quite other directions: directions that cut right across 
their plans. From the start, knowing that the existence of 
John Burns, one-time friend, now, politically, open enemy, 
made any really effective “capture” of the Liberal party, 
as such, impossible, they strove to organise the campaign 
on a non-party basis. Unfamiliar as they inevitably were 
with the potency of party affiliations, and the ineffectiveness, 
in national politics, of non-party action, they believed that 
they could cut across party lines, and get a goodwill con- 
sensus strong enough to force action on a Government. 

The success achieved in the capture of the Progressives 
for a programme of far-reaching Municipalisation misled 
them, here. Yet it was to that end that they strove to keep 
rather in the background the fact that their most whole- 
hearted support came from the ranks of the Labour Party. 
They did not present the Minority proposals as Socialism, 
at this stage ; on the contrary. This very subterfuge, in so far 
as it was one, confused the issue, and certainly gave a further 
excuse for inaction by the dominant parties. They never 
really got any considerable body of Conservative support : yet, 
for its sake, they were forced to sacrifice the opportunity of 
getting a genuine working class drive behind their proposals. 

They saw this, before they left England; they saw it 
even more clearly when they got back. Somehow, the high 
tide was receding. The enthusiastic meetings went on : the 
Webbs continued to be national figures of vivid prominence ; 
but the thing began to have a stale, unreal, and repetitive 
feel. Quietly, the Local Government Board was putting 
its house in order; but nothing was going to be done, 
beyond that. Both the trend of industrial events, and the 


swing of political forces, was against them. The trade 
depression of 1907-10 was ending: in 1911, the curve of 
business and of employment was beginning to rise. Prices 
too were going up, and the minds of the Unions were set 
to wages questions, rather than to the problems of destitution. 
More important still, Mr. Lloyd George was launching his 
Social Reform programme, on lines far removed from theirs, 
and detaching the support of the volatile Mr. Churchill 
for them. The establishment of a network of Labour 
Exchanges, and in 1911, of Contributory Insurance against 
Unemployment, on a limited scale, seemed to take the 
sting out of their proposals, under this head. Later in the 
same year, came his National Health Insurance legislation, 
again, on a contributory basis. This, after acute divisions, 
the Labour Party, in the House of Commons, decided to 
support. As the Webbs put it succinctly, much later, 

* ‘ Although these schemes of social insurance left untouched both 
the evils and the cost of the Poor Law, and thus gave the go-by to 
the proposals of the Commission, they presently absorbed the 
whole attention not only of the Cabinet and the legislature, but 
of the public. All the steam went out of the movement for 
extinguishing the Boards of Guardians .” 1 

It is not without significance, that in this comment they 
speak as though what they had been aiming at was simply 
the “abolition of the Boards of Guardians.” As a matter 
of fact, had that been their simple, single proposition, they 
might have got it through. It never was; and, as an item, 
it fell more and more into the background. The very 
widening of the issue ; the expansion of the campaign into 
a war against Destitution, all along the line, and for the 
establishment of a “Framework of Prevention,” militated 
against the achievement of the more limited objective. 

Anyhow, the battle was lost: the field of fighting had 
been transferred. Indeed, even The Crusade , throughout 
1 English Poor Law History , p. 723. 



1912, has to devote as many pages to the new Insurance 
Bill as to the Campaign. These pages are highly critical. 
The Webbs in effect had to accept rt a>most difficult kind of 
defeat. Some of the things they wanted done were being 
done, in what they thought a fatally wrong way: a way 
that blocked future advance on the right line. Yet at the 
same time the public mind had been completely deflected 
from attention to their alternative proposals. They saw 
this. They knew that they were beaten. 

In the summer of 1912, accordingly, Mrs. Webb tells the 
readers of The Crusade that 

“The general acceptance of our policy puts us in a difficulty. 
We have almost, it seems, reached ‘saturation point' as regards 
public opinion. We cannot go on forever expounding the 
Minority Report to audiences already converted to it." 

In 1912, a second great National Conference was held, 
and most successfully; but, long before that year was 
out, the decision had been taken, and was being put into 
effect. While volunteers were to continue to meet the 
demand for lectures, and the Press Committee was to go on, 
and the work of replying to enquirers; while “We shall 
not let slip any opportunity of doing useful work,” and 
“shall maintain a watchful eye in order to note (and 
promptly take means to circumvent and oppose) any 
reactionary proposal,” no further subscriptions are to be 
asked for. The office was to be kept on at half strength; 
but, as Mrs. Webb puts it, 

“My husband and I feel that we must ourselves now take up new 
ground, and turn our main energies in other directions.” 

The Crusade appeared for the last time in that form 
in March 1913; in April 1913, the editor transferred 
himself to The New Statesman , a sixpenny weekly, which 
then started a useful career that was to last for the next 
sixteen years, until in 1930, it absorbed the Liberal Nation . 


Although not formally connected, at its foundation, with 
the National Committee, the Statesman's directors, and 
practically all its shareholders were members. Mrs. Webb 
was herself a director, while Sidney was Chairman. The 
editor was given all freedom. At the same time, as she puts 
it in her Valedictory to The Crusade , 

“We shall both write a great deal, probably every week; and 
we shall have the assistance of a brilliant staff — is not Mr. 
Bernard Shaw himself one of us? — and quite special corres- 
pondents from all parts of the world.” 

Those who took out subscriptions before April 12th were 
to get their Statesman for a guinea a year: a plan then new 
in journalism, and highly successful. 

Nowhere do the qualities that make the Webbs great 
shine out more clearly than in the two volumes they were 
later to devote to the history of the English Poor Law in two 
centuries, and incidentally, of the Crusade for the Minority 
Report. They shine above all, in the passage, where, after 
a brief account of the great campaign, they record its 
failure, as such, and then pass on to a survey of Poor Law 
development, and the development of Prevention, since 
1910, which is absolutely detached in its appraisals and in 
its analysis. 

They knew what had happened. The politicians had 
beaten them. John Burns, from his stronghold in the 
Local Government Board, had proved stouter to resist 
than they to attack. It was a major defeat, such as they 
were far too shrewd and far too able as strategists not to 
recognise and understand. Unforgettably they had learned 
the vital importance of the political side of social effort, 
and the relative inefficacy of non-party action. 



For reasons which they were far too intelligent not to 
see, and far too candid not to admit, the great agitation 
of 1909-12 was a failure. The intense activity of those 
years gave them, it is true, a kind of visible prominence 
and recognised potency as public figures. For this, they 
cared little; he, indeed, positively disliked it. Anyhow, 
it was no offset to the realisation, as part cause of that 
failure, of a strong tide of feeling obviously setting in, 
derived from emotions and ideas in which they disbelieved 
and of which they disapproved, and leading to a kind of 
action they regarded, at best, as irrelevant, and, at worst, as 

As, in 1899, ^ey returned from the New World to 
find the Old in the grips of all the tumultuous passions 
of the South African War, so, very soon after their return 
from China, Japan and India in the winter of 1911, they 
became aware of a ferment brewing. Its full outcome 
they could not foresee: but they could and did see that 
it threatened to undermine nearly everything they believed 
in. It is the major advantage of any extended absence 
from one’s own land that, on return, an outline looms 
up at one such as can rarely be perceived by the immersed 
inhabitant. An outline loomed up at them in 1911; it 
disquieted them, profoundly. 

It is become habitual to-day to look back upon the 
pre-war decade, and above all, the two or three years 
immediately preceding the fatal “ stumble into catastrophe/’ 



as a sort of Golden Era of peace, progress and prosperity. 
How short are memories! Anyone alive then who now 
makes the effort to reconstruct that period in its detail 
will discover that there comes back to him an atmosphere 
cumulatively hectic, uneasy, and so little happy that 
even the least sensitive were aware of some deep disorder 
in the frame of things. The externals of prosperity were 
there, inasmuch as between 1912 and 1914 trade was 
good and business flourishing; but, politically and indus- 
trially, there was a far-reaching sense of insecurity and 
unrest, while the colour of thought and feeling was shot 
with angry hues of violence and the belief in force. The 
current philosophy of the day was re-acting strongly against 
reason, and installing instinct in its place: instinct which 
must not be thwarted or even controlled. Action was 
extolled above thought. Bergson and Coue were preparing 
the way for Freud and Sorel. 

The political scene was dominated by militancy, both 
in the women’s struggle for emancipation, and in the 
armed resistance to Home Rule preparing in North-East 
Ulster; and while the Asquith Government did carry 
out a savage, if ineffective, repression of the women’s 
efforts, leading statesmen, high Army chiefs, and all the 
best drawing-rooms in London applauded the appeal to 
the sword in Ireland. Industrially, 1911 to 1914 was 
an epoch of strikes, actual and threatened, such as had 
not been known for decades: and of an apparent conver- 
sion of the British Trade Union movement to the technique 
of “direct action.” There were strikes, between 1911 
and 1913, of railwaymen, miners, transport workers, 
building trades workers, engineers, and shipbuilders : 
labour disputes, which totalled under four hundred in 
1908, rose to over nine hundred in 1913: and in the first 
half of 1914 were declared at the rate of something like 
one hundred and fifty a month : in the late summer of that 


21 1 

year, industrial upheaval very much on the scale of 1926 
would have been experienced but for the outbreak of 

war. The Webbs, in the 1920 edition of their History 
of Trade Unionism , say bluntly: “ British Trade Unionism 

was, in fact, in the summer of 1914, working up for an 
almost revolutionary outburst of gigantic industrial disputes. 55 
Tom Mann had come back from Australia to preach 
Syndicalism, the control over industry by the workers 
engaged in it, and to rouse them, if he could, to seize 
power through a vigorous declaration and practice of 
the Class War. At the same time, orderly Collectivism 
was being vigorously attacked. The revulsion against 
it, and against the Webbs, was harsh. Their non-party 
attitude during the Minority campaign had alienated 
many Labour people and groups: they stood, moreover 
for a kind of outlook which ran entirely counter to the 
new mood. The swing against them was violent. In 
1913 and 1914 the very word, Collectivism, was enough 
to produce a jeer at Labour meetings. The unofficial 
Daily Herald , founded about this time, was a purely militant 
organ, both on Suffrage and on Strikes. It treated the 
Webbs with hostile derision. Its regular term for St. 
Stephen’s was “The House of Pretense”: its attitude to 
the Labour Party there purely hostile. It voiced, with 
angry acrimony, a pretty general disappointment, born 
of too sanguine hopes of what a small Labour Opposition 
could actually accomplish. It inveighed against parliamen- 
tarism and even against democracy on lines not very 
different from those of its colleague on the other side, 
The Morning Post . And it saw the Webbs as epitomising 
everything it hated. 

Here, then, were the “other directions” to which, so 
Mrs. Webb wrote in March 1913, she and her husband 
felt that they must turn their energies. Here was a threat 
to all that they cared for and had worked for: a threat 


that was the more formidable because, being mainly 
psychological, it was hard to measure, harder to get hold 
of and rebut. That, inside the Labour and Trade Union 
movement, a definite phase of the new agitation was an 
attack on them, personally, and as the High Priests of 
Bureaucratic Collectivism, they took with sangfroid . Just 
as they read The New Machiavelli without rancour and 
with real amusement, so they read Hilaire Belloc’s Servile 
State. They argued, on public platforms, and in their 
own drawing-room, with Mr. Belloc and his friends, and 
with the new, young school of prophets of The New Age , 
with perfect good temper: a serene affability that their 
opponents found intensely hard to bear. 

The “ barrage” of hostile criticism, to which they were 
exposed was, of course, disagreeable. They are human. 
They did not enjoy it. They enjoyed it the less, from 
the suddenness of its contrast. But if it distressed them, 
the reason was because such attack appealed to, and 
derived its effectiveness from, dangerous elements of sheer 
irrationality and class bitterness. They did fullest justice 
to the facts that lay behind the “disappointment with 
democracy” that was being exploited — the lag of wages 
behind prices: the long failure to redress the blank injustice 
of the Osborne Judgment of 1909 (which made the political 
levy of the Trade Unions illegal — a position redressed in 
1913, but put back by the Act of 1927); the particular 
hardships of many great groups of workers, of which 
miners and railwaymen were the outstanding cases; and 
the general atmosphere of uncertainty and restlessness. 
It perturbed them, however, gravely, because it was 
affecting, in first line, the two groups in the community 
to which they had, in first line, devoted their most constant 
efforts — the organised workers and the intelligent young. 
These mattered infinitely more to them than the politicians, 
from whom they still held more or less aloof. 


The case of the young was serious. Always, they had 
gathered the upcoming generation to them at Grosvenor 
Road; young politicians, of any party: young Trade 
Unionists: young journalists and literary and scientific 
workers of keen mind: young lecturers at the London 
School of Economics. Rows of young men who were 
to achieve distinction of some kind — W. H. Beveridge, 
R. H. Tawney, Arthur Salter, Walter Layton, Arthur 
Steel-Maitland, Walter Elliot, Leonard Woolf, Maynard 
Keynes — these, and dozens more, had been habitues, and 
even sat at their feet at one time or another. With young 
men, and, to a slightly less degree, with young women, 
Mrs. Webb, in particular, had a very happy touch. Her 
“young men,” indeed, had been something of a friendly 
joke in the hey-day of the Minority Report agitation. 
Now, the breakaway was serious among the young, both 
in the Trade Union ranks, where Tom Mann was leading 
it: and among the intellectuals, where, even inside the 
Fabian Society, G. D. H. Cole and Clifford Allen were 
heading a new “reform” movement, within the citadel. 

Mrs. Webb’s own connexion with the Fabian Society 
had, during the years between 1892 and 1912, been largely 
passive. She was, of course, a member; in 1907, she 
had suddenly leapt into action on the question of the 
equal status of women. But it was not until their return 
from the 1911 travels that she expressed a readiness to 
stand for the Executive. She was at once elected, with 
a vote very nearly as large as that practically unanimous 
one given to her husband year after year, ever since his 
entry into the Society. Once on, she immediately began 
to function. The first fruit of her activity was the establish- 
ment of a Research Department, of a semi-independent 
kind, specially financed, and designed to substitute organ- 
ised, expert, collective research for the more or less individual 
research such as had given birth to nearly all the Fabian 


Tracts. The results were to be, and actually were, published 
in the first instance in the form of Supplements to The 
New Statesman. The first two lines of enquiry opened 
up, through special Committees appointed for the purpose, 
were “Land Problems and Rural Development,” and 
“The Control of Industry.” On the first, no controversy 
arose. A Report was prepared and published, first in 
the Statesman , and later in book form. The Second, how- 
ever, was another matter. Here, under the standing Webb 
formula, “First know the Facts,” the very core of the 
industrial ferment was being attacked. William Mellor, 
who had been appointed secretary of the new Research 
Department, was with G. D. H. Cole, among the most 
ardent and effective prophets of a school of interpretation 
of the facts bearing on the control of industry which was 
in sharp and expressed antagonism to the Webbs. Mellor 
and Cole not only held the view that the History of Trade 
Unionism and even more urgently, Industrial Democracy , 
required to be re-written; they were ready to do it, and 
viewed the Research Department as their instrument for 
that useful purpose. 

To this view, with facts fully on their side, the Webbs 
were able, politely but firmly, to say “Nonsense,” when 
in 1920 they penned new Prefaces to both works. In 
1933, it even clearer than it was in 1920, that Gild 
Socialism, as the T positive doctrine of Cole, Mellor and their 
associates, came to be called, was only one of those sporadic 
off-shoots from the main line of development which grow 
lustily for a time, and then wither for lack of organic sap. 
But the position appeared very different, in 1 91 3-14. 

Syndicalism — the doctrine of “all power to the producer” 
— swept over the French Labour movement, with M. Georges 
Sorel’s Reflexions sur la Violence as its sympathetic textbook 
for the intelligentsia. Crossing the Channel, it was, by 
the same intelligentsia, subjected to a sea change. In 


South Wales, Tom Mann preached Syndicalism, neat: but 
in The New Age , A. R. Orage, A. J. Penty in the earlier 
phase, G. D. H. Cole and W. Mellor in the later, gave it 
a romantic gloss of Medievalism and William Morris. 
Actually, the text books on Gild ideas, together with the 
lion’s share of organising what was at one stage a quite 
impressive movement, belong to G. D. H. Cole. He, 
after an unsuccessful effort, from a position on its Executive, 
to convert the Fabian Society resigned his membership in 
1915, to found his National Gilds League. Owing to his 
drive and energy, the close connexion he established with 
the Engineers, and the circumstances of the war itself, 
notably in Munitions establishments, the National Gilds 
League was, for a stage, a factor in industrial life of genuine 
importance. Its underlying ideas, as set out by him in The 
World of Labour (published in 1913) and in other subsequent 
books, represent a thorough-going attack on the whole 
Webb position. The frontispiece to The World of Labour , 
drawn by Will Dyson, shows the hapless and emaciated 
form of British Labour extended on the operating table, with 
Sidney and Beatrice preparing to make the vital incision, 
while MacDonald, in a graceful, languid pose, leans over 
the end of the table as anaesthetist, the chloroform he is 
administering being drawn from St. Stephen’s. Behind the 
Webbs are Sydney Olivier, E. R. Pease, Will Crooks, Lloyd 
George, Masterman and Snowden : round the arena, in the 
middle distance, are Hyndman and G. B. Shaw in one 
group, Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and George Lansbury in 
another. In his opening chapter, Mr. Cole draws a distinc- 
tion between the British and Continental Labour movements, 
gravely to the disadvantage of the former: 

“It is the most striking contrast between the British and the 
Continental Labour movements that here the intellectuals seem 
to have so little influence as to be almost negligible. ... In 
reality, we have been saved from important divergencies within 


the Labour Movement not because our intellectuals have had no 
influence, but because a single and very practical-minded 
body of them long ago carried the day. The first leaders of the 
Fabian Society, and in particular Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb, were 
able so completely, through the Independent Labour Party, 
to impose their conception of society on the Labour Movement 
that it seemed unnecessary for anyone to do any further thinking. 
On such a view, the intellectual problem of Labour was solved, 
and the practical problems remained; the Labour Movement 
therefore, became intensely ‘practical,' and so far as the end in 
view was concerned as fantastically fatalistic as the worst of the 
later followers of Marx. The progress of Labour was beautifully 
resolved into the gradual evolution of a harmony divinely pre- 
established by the Fabian Society in the early nineties. The his- 
tory of the recent intellectual unrest is, in great measure, the 
sign that Labour has at last used up the inspiration of the early 
Fabian and is turning elsewhere for light — to what is vaguely 
called Syndicalism from what Mr. Punch has named ‘Sidney 
Webbicahsm.’ ” 

He goes on to attack 4 ‘ Sidney W ebbicalism ’ ’ as being mainly a 
theory of Distribution, and to dispose of political action since 

“the present Labour Party can never become a majority, and 
would be sadly at a loss to know what to do if it did become 

Positing group psychology as the “new” fact, the class 
struggle as the “awful” fact, he sees the organisation of 
government by the producers as the only way out of the 

To the attacks upon them which the Gild Socialists made 
constantly, and, at times, savagely, both in public and in 
private, the Webbs paid no heed. So far as they were 
concerned, these attacks had no influence either on their 
personal relations with the attackers, or on their contro- 
versial tone. She may, occasionally, have spoken with 
asperity: not so he. They bore the reaction against them 
with fortitude; they fought on every inch of the front in 
defence of the central Collectivist position, of Democracy, 
and of the political State. If the reader of the nineteen- 


thirties finds rather surprising the very large amount of 
space in their later works devoted to the refutation of so- 
called “Functionalism” and “Functional Democracy, 59 
the reason is that, from 1913 until the great post-war slump 
set in, this movement appeared to be carrying everything 
before it. The organisation of Shop Stewards 9 Committees in 
munitions and engineering and ship-building establish- 
ments, together with the foundation of the National Building 
Gild, seemed, at the time, to indicate the beginning of a 
radical transformation both of Trade Union structure and 
function. Lenin, in 1919, not only thought that England 
was on the eve of revolution, on account of the spread of 
this movement: he regarded Sidney Webb’s opposition to 
it as a sign that he was “working in the interests of the 
Capitalists.” But the very comments Lenin then made, 
as recorded by Arthur Ransome, in his Six Weeks in Russia y 
show that he was under a natural enough misapprehension 
both as to the scale and the ideology of Gild Socialism. 
He thought that the Shop Stewards’ Committees represented 
a form of Soviet; he did not know that Cole himself, in 
the interest of “all power to the producers” was, from 1918 
on, as a matter of fact, hot against Sovietism, and busily 
fighting against it inside the I.L.P., where he found himself, 
about 1919-20, in an odd, temporary alliance with Mac- 
Donald. Sovietism had but a brief “run” in Britain; 
for it, as for Gild Socialism, the Webbs on one line, Mac- 
Donald on another, proved too strong. Neither the I.L.P. 
nor the Fabian Society was “converted” to either. At any 
time, and on any issue, an alliance between the Webb- 
MacDonald forces was almost irresistible. 

By 1920, the Webbs could write that Syndicalism was 
“a ferment rather than a statistically important element in 
the Trade Union world”; five years later, they would 
hardly have assigned even so much significance to Gild 
Socialism. Yet it had its importance, both at the time, and 


as contributing to the shift in Socialist thinking generally, 
and that of the Webbs in particular, away from anything 
that could be called “ bureaucratic ” Collectivism, to a more 
various and flexible form, in which the organisations of 
producers and of consumers each have their vital parts 
to play in a general plan more decentralised, and more 
thoroughly and consciously democratic, than they had 
thought of in their early analysis. Gild Socialism, for in- 
stance, affected, directly and lastingly, the view taken of 
Nationalisation. Once, State ownership and control over 
distribution, production and exchange, had been conceived, 
even by the Webbs, as concentrated in Departments of 
Government, national and municipal, rather on the Post 
Office model. Sidney Webb always realised the part to 
be played by municipal action much more clearly than 
most “ arm-chair ” Socialists; but even there, he had 
been, before Gild Socialism, a more strict Collectivist than 
he was after it. The importance attached to vocational 
associations, of all kinds, in their later works is, in part, a 
residuum of the Gild Socialist controversies; in part, 
however, a development of one of their own earlier lines 
of thinking. A major effect of the whole thing was that 
it served to compel the non-political Webbs to come, with 
all their battalions of argument, and ultimately, all their 
resources for action, to the defence of the political State. 

If these controversies, and the years in which they are 
set, present, to-day, a somewhat bleached and unreal 
appearance, that is due to the fact that, in August 1914, 
the war sw f ept them, like the great strikes then on the 
point of exploding, and the tense political issues that 
absorbed English minds to the practical exclusion of what, 
in July, was happening in Europe, into the limbo of for- 
gotten things. For four grim years, the Webbs, like everyone 
else, were whirled out of the world they had known, on the 
wings of a blast that withered and dispersed all old argu- 


ments, and made most old activities look insubstantial 
and remote. On August 4th, 1914, a hand closed over the 
throats of industrial strikers, political fighters, and rational 
thinkers, whose iron clamp was hardly relaxed for the next 
four years. A vast darkness swallowed up the past. There 
seemed to be no future. The present, instant, terrifying, 
was the scene of mighty forces that appeared to have sprung 
up out of the nether earth, and to partake of a character 
awful, elemental, and incomprehensible. Under the red 
glow of the war sky, molten with passion and destructive 
of thought, the Webbs look rather forlorn and strangely 
small, as do any individual humans, in that period of in- 
human waste and sustained dread and horror. It is hard 
to see them, moving under its dark and terrible effulgence. 
No two people in the world, perhaps, found in themselves 
less of instinctive response to the primitive emotions war 
released; to none was it more appalling in its revelation 
of the black, imprisoned recesses of the mind of man, in 
which dwell cruelty, falsity and perverted idealism in a 
ghastly mingle. To ask whether they understood it, fully, 
is unnecessary; who did? who does? They certainly 
suffered under it. 

Not in their biography is the place in which to attempt 
to make living that fearsome tale of years, which, neverthe- 
less, represents the major element in the experience, and 
the great governing factor of the reactions, of two gener- 
ations. For them, as for others, it was a time of simple 
personal pain, as well as a time in which everything in which 
they believed appeared to be going under, lost beneath a 
black and tortured tide of senseless suffering. 

Of affectionate distress, she had the heavier burden 
to carry. Her own family, through its younger generation, 
was deeply and intimately involved in the contrasted phases 
of war agony. Many of her nephews were officers at the 
front; another nephew, Stephen Hobhouse, was a leading 


conscientious objector. Outside the family circle, too, 
countless young men in whom they were interested were 
caught up and perished in the fiery whirlpool. Nor, in the 
wider sphere of social relations, could they fail to feel the 
whole thing as a threat, alarming, nay terrifying, on the 
part of the non-rational elements in life which they would 
have liked to be able to leave out. They saw emotion, 
senseless and shattering, sweep up and over order and reason 
and progress and good sense; over good-will and even 
over decency. The orgy of sheer sentiment was nauseating 
to them; the disclosure of subterranean forces such as they 
had not allowed for, and from which they shrank back in 
horror, sped arrows of destroying doubt to the very centre of 
their thinking. It is significant that they have nowhere, in 
direct terms, tried to measure or place this appalling phen- 
omenon. True, in their great manifesto against Capitalism, 
The Decay of Capitalist Civilisation , published in 1923, there are 
a couple of trenchant pages, entitled “How Wars Occur 
but this passage has only to be re-read, to-day, to puzzle the 
reader by its inadequacy, in every respect, to the fearsome 
thing with which it purports to deal. Never has any great 
event been treated by them in a manner so nearly perfunc- 
tory. Is one wrong in feeling, behind this rare perfunctori- 
ness, something like an emotional, even an intellectual, fear? 

Their public attitude to the war was conventional. With- 
out sharing any of its ugly exaggerations, they took, in broad 
outline, the patriotic view. As late as December 1918, in 
his election address to the electors of London University, 
to whom he offered himself as a Labour candidate, he says — 

“World calamity as I hold the war to be, I have never wavered, 
from Lord Grey’s exposition of the case on August 3rd, 1914, in 
my conviction that this nation had no alternative, either in 
honour or in safety, but to take up the challenge . . . and pur- 
sue the struggle resolutely to the end, until aggressive militarism 
was overthrown.” 



In this attitude, of course, he was in agreement with the 
majority of the Labour Party, as well as with the majority 
of the nation. Mrs. Webb, one gathers, moved towards a 
definitely Pacifist position earlier than he did; on recon- 
struction, as on the terms of an international settlement, 
they were both entirely with the Pacifists, while disagreeing 
with them both as to the action that could have been taken 
by a British Government in August 1914, and on the 
possibility of what was then called “ peace without victory.’ 5 

In some respects, the circumstances and grouping of 
persons about them, resembled what they had been at the 
time of the Boer War. Once again, the I.L.P. was ranged 
against the war, while the Fabian attitude in the main was 
one of acceptance of the inevitable. Once again, Webb 
and MacDonald were on different sides. They were together, 
however, in another effort, and one that absorbed a good 
deal of the time and energy of both, and thereby brought 
them to a respectful mutual understanding, during the 
dread years of the war’s course. If, at the end of them, 
the Labour movement in Great Britain, in this respect most 
happily unlike those of France, Germany or Italy, emerged 
stronger, more coherent in policy and purpose than it was 
at the beginning; and if, during their passage, it was able 
to do certain valuable practical work, the measure of recog- 
nition, under both heads, due to Sidney Webb is a very 
large one. He, in fact, must be seen, during these years, as 
largely occupied in the effort — and the successful effort — to 
keep the party so hard at work on concrete, practical 
matters that even the deep fissure of disagreement on the war 
itself never widened to become a lasting split. His work, here, 
was inevitably anonymous, and he desired to have it so; 
but, on this vital point he counts with Ramsay MacDonald 
and Arthur Henderson among the architects of unity. 

In the last days of July 1914, when the “stumble into 
war ” was still a dark menace only, which men of good will 


still hoped to see averted, MacDonald and Henderson, from 
the offices of the Labour Party, took the initiative in sum- 
moning a Conference of all sections of the movement, in all 
its branches. This Conference was designed to bring into 
being a Workers’ Peace Emergency Committee, to take 
concerted action to keep the peace. So swiftly did events 
move, however, that when the Conference actually met, on 
August 5th, war had already been declared. MacDonald, 
after making, in the House of Commons, a speech on lines 
agreed to by the parliamentary party as a whole, found the 
majority gone from behind him. He resigned his leadership 
and was replaced by Arthur Henderson. 

It was Arthur Henderson, therefore, who presided over a 
Conference to which came representatives of the Trade 
Union Congress, the Labour Party, the General Federation of 
Trade Unions, the Miners’ Federation, the Railwaymen, the 
Textile Workers, the Transport Workers, the Co-operative 
Movement, the Teachers, and the Socialist Societies. Among 
notable individual members of the Executive body set up by 
this Conference — a body called, in view of the altered 
circumstances, the War Emergency Workers’ National 
Committee — were Robert Smillie, Mary Macarthur, W. C. 
Anderson, Arthur Henderson, J. Ramsay MacDonald, 
J. A. Seddon, William Brace, H. M. Hyndman and Sidney 
Webb, with J. S. Middleton as secretary. This Committee — 
the most representative body set up in the history of the 
Labour Movement, including as it did the largest possible 
range of diverse personalities and points of view — actually 
met two and even three times a week during the early months 
of the war, and, throughout its course, normally once a 
week. Its minutes provided local labour parties and trade 
councils throughout the country with guidance: and the 
Conferences it organised exercised a most important influ- 
ence in guiding opinion and even in affecting Government 


The immediate response of organised labour to the 
declaration of war was to suspend all strikes, and proclaim 
an industrial truce “for the duration.” There was a rush of 
volunteers to the colours: an equally impressive rush of 
volunteers from all classes and both sexes, for any and every 
kind of “war work.” The first problem to be faced was that 
of unemployment. This was severe at first, notably among 
women, and accompanied by widespread distress; although 
it was soon to pass off, and be replaced by the very different 
problem of an inexhaustible demand for labour for muni- 
tions, and for the substitution of the men who continued to 
pour into the army. Early on, indeed, war, under modern 
conditions, proved not to correspond to anybody’s expec- 
tations, either as to its scale or scope; nor were there any 
lines for meeting it, set down “in the books.” When the 
War Workers 5 Committee first met, few of its members had 
any very clear notion of how it was to function, or what it 
was to do. Feelings ran high; tempers were brittle; there 
was dangerous and inflammable material about, which might 
easily have exploded, in a void. Fortunately there was one 
member who had clear notions as to what the Committee 
was for, and how it was to work. 

The Secretary has recorded that, within the first week 
of the Committee’s existence, Sidney Webb had drafted a 
thirty-two page pamphlet. This not only demanded that 
the workers should be represented on the Distress Commit- 
tees by then beginning to be set up, all over the country, but 
gave to those representatives a clear and concrete lead as to 
the questions that would meet them, the sort of action they 
ought to press for, and the line generally, that they should 
take. When the MS. was handed over to the Secretary, he 
remarked that it bore no author’s name. The author nodded. 
“ It will have far more influence without my name than with 
it.” This, as Mr. Middleton observes, was true. Few men, 
however, would have thought as much; fewer still would 


have said so. It was eminently characteristic of this author, 
that he did both think so and say so — and meant what he said 
to be acted upon. His interest wholly concentrated, as ever, 
on getting things done, he pursued this same line, throughout 
the years of the Committee's work. A very large proportion 
of its publications actually emanated from his pen, but only 
the Secretary and he knew just how much he was doing, either 
in regard to actual drafting or in influencing the course which 
the work took. Much later, he did put his name to one or two 
pamphlets; but the bulk of his writing passed anonymously 
into circulation, and he preferred that it should be so. 

This first draft of his was not only full of practical utility: 
it was designed to give the Committee, at its first meeting, 
something to “get its teeth into.” Busy, and busy on work 
of which every member could see the direct practical bearing, 
minds were kept off such perilous stuff as ‘Who is respon- 
sible?’ ‘Was the war inevitable?' ‘Could Britain have 
kept out?'; and men w'ho differed passionately on the 
burning issue of the hour, left their differences behind while 
they coped with immediate problems affecting the daily 
lives of the workers in the country'. So, week after week, 
during the long, strenuous, and often agitated life of the 
Committee, men on the extreme Pacifist Left met those on 
the extreme Patriotic Right and temporarily sank their 
differences, nay, forgot them, in a common constructive task. 

This was rendered possible by the endless fertility and 
resourcefulness of Webb; his inexhaustible energy in pro- 
viding week after week, a really “ mcat-y ” Agenda. Thanks 
in the main to him, there were always so many matters of 
immediate practical concern, and patent urgency, to discuss 
and plan for, that there was literally no time for mere 
sword-crossing on views. He was resourceful, he was tire- 
less, he knew his job from A to Z. Many a man can bring up 
a string of points when a committee starts its work; most 
however run dry after the first few meetings. His ingenuity 


never ran dry. And it was not mere ingenuity. Always he 
was practical, realist, on the spot, concerned with some 
authentic matter of day to day hardship or approaching 
seriousness; never merely ingenious. 

The Committee did substantial work. While loyally 
leaving purely Trade Union matters to the Trade Unions, it 
covered the whole range of domestic experiences during the 
war, from rents and prices to pensions and allowances. Very 
early, for example, it got on to the glaring scandal of Govern- 
ment contracts, and demanded their public, not private 
allocation. Its exposure of the appalling profiteering con- 
nected with the erection of Kitchener Army Huts — where 
the Government was being charged at the rate of between 
£ l 3 °~£i 5 ° f° r wretched, insanitary and waterlogged struc- 
tures that cost something between £10 and £14 to erect — 
was only one instance among many of the way in which it 
looked after the general interest as no other group was able 
to do, owing to the combined operation of the Suspension of 
Trade Union conditions and the political truce. 

The Committee was useful to the workers, Unionist 
and non-Unionist alike, since it was an effective watch- 
dog for their protection, as of that of the citizen 
generally. Its Minutes, circulated to local Labour Parties 
and Trade Councils, were always rich in practical sense and 
shrewd foresight to meet issues as, or before, they arose. 
Webb was tireless, in this: nothing escaped him. Quite 
early in 1915, the Committee was pressing for Government 
action on the following suggestive list of points — 

Labour representation of all committees, national or local. 

Adequate provision for soldiers and sailors and their dependents 
including unmarried wives and mothers — through State and not 
voluntary machinery. 

Their pressure for a decent scale for the families of the men 
at the front was incessant; and though they never succeeded 


in getting the scales they demanded it was thanks to them 
that the miserable original scales were reformed, as that 
the unmarried wife and mother was treated with common 

Co-operative canteens for soldiers in camps and barracks. 

Productive work for the unemployed. 

Encouragement of home-grown food supplies. 

Protection of the consumer against excessive prices, through the 
legal establishment of maxima, and the commandeering of 
supplies of essentia! commodities and raw materials. 

A Municipal Housing programme. 

The establishment of Maternity and Infant Welfare centres. 

The provision of meals and clothes for school children. 

The establishment and continuance of control over railways, 
docks, coal and food supplies, freights etc. 

As a matter of fact, if the actual standard of life of the 
British worker was, by the later stages of the war, in many 
cases higher than it had lecn lx* fore, that result was very 
largely due to what the Webbs describe, without suggesting 
that they had any part in it, as 

“The valuable, though often unwelcome assistance, which this 
Committee gave to the Government by insisting on the redress 
of grievances, which officialdom would ha vr ignored, and by 
its working out of polk y and persistence in agitation 1 /* 

Of the war on the Home From, the records of the Com- 
mittee give a most vivid picture; its human actualities 
were certainly far more swiftly apprehended by this body 
of men and women in close tom b with the common facts 
of daily life than they were by the Cabinet. 

H. M. Hyndman was one of the members of the Com- 
mittee. His wife, in her biography of him, tells a story of 
his, about its working, which is certainly tinged with his 

'thorny vf Trsdt t'manum, 1930 Rfi, p. 690 



own peculiar outlook. He describes what he calls “an 
unholy little compact, which I believe was never actually 
put into words” between himself and Sidney Webb. 

“When anything important comes up, I bring out a root-and- 
branch revolutionary proposal, and set it well before them. That 
puts them in a fright; and then Webb comes in with his pro- 
posal, only a few degrees milder than mine; and they are so 
relieved that they pass Webb’s motion unanimously — although 
if that had been proposed to them first, they would have found 
it much too strong, and perhaps refused to handle it at all.” 

Hyndman here, one fancies, is speaking with the authentic 
voice of the Social Democratic Party he represented, and 
with their conception of what is “revolutionary.” It is apt, 
with them, to be a question of what Sidney Webb, in 
opposing an amendment brought forward at a later Confer- 
ence, was to call “bringing in the old shibboleths again.” 
On that, he remarked gently, “We have heard the same 
speech over and over again; I am not against it; but it 
gets a bit monotonous.” 

That “they” did “pass Webb’s motion” is credible 
enough ; certainly he was mainly responsible for the 
Committee’s admirable work on the entire complex of issues 
known as “Food Prices,” where, had its advice been taken, 
at the time at which it was first given, much trouble, and 
much real distress might have been avoided. On an allied 
problem, that of rents, his work was also notably effective. 
The rise in rent charges, at a time when to find alternative 
accommodation was absolutely impossible, was a very real 
grievance, and with no group more real than with the wives 
of soldiers. With great skill, he got a working alliance into 
being between a sub-committee of the W.E.W.N.C. and 
bodies representing the property owners. To the conference 
arranged with the latter body, he took H. M. Hyndman 
along with him; the latter protesting loudly, as he waved 
his silk hat, against being involved in such “bourgeois 


contact.” When they got there, Webb had a Memorandum 
ready. In return for an acceptance, on the part of his 
Committee, of a restriction in the rate of mortgage interest, 
he got the property owners’ representatives to agree to the 
principle of the legal limitation of rents. Thereupon, a 
joint Deputation to the Minister took place, which resulted 
in the prompt introduction and passage of the Rent Restric- 
tion Act, — which could never have been got through 
without this ‘bourgeois’ co-operation. 

This is not the place in which to record the full history 
of the work of the Committee, important as it was. A 
dramatic instance of the power they, at times, wielded was 
the dropping by the Government of the project, formed at 
the time of a critical shortage of munitions, of introducing 
Chinese labourers into Great Britain. The Government 
was not grateful, at the time ; though they realised later how 
stupid such a defiance of popular feeling would have been. 

Through his work on the War Emergency Committee, 
Webb, in his turn, became personally known to, and grew 
to appreciate, many leading members of the Labour Party, 
with whom his contacts before had only been superficial. 
Arthur Henderson, on joining the Coalition Government in 
1915, was succeeded as Chairman (after a brief interval in 
which J. A. SMdon held the position, and then resigned 
from the Committee altogether) by Robert Smillie. Always 
he expresses the warmest admiration for the great mining 
leader’s quality: his mental grasp as well as that loveable- 
ness everyone felt who got beneath his somewhat gnarled 
surface. With Srnillie, on this Committee, and with 
MacDonald here, and also on the War Aims Special Com- 
mittee set up in 1917, he worked in very close harmony. 
There was a complete burying of hatchets. Further, in 
1915, he became, for the first time, a member of the National 
Executive of the Labour Party itself. The Fabian nominee 
had for some years previously been W. Stephen Sanders: 


when Sanders took up war service in 1915, his place on the 
National Executive was taken by Webb. Here, of course, he 
had to co-operate in discussion and decision over the entire 
range of policy, international as well as domestic. It is no 
longer any secret, though it was so at the time, that his was 
the hand that drafted that broad and generous statement of 
party policy, Labour and The New Social Order , which Arnold 
Bennett described, in The Daily News (January 23rd, 1918) as 

“A publication of first-rate interest and first-rate social import- 
ance, which everybody can afford to buy, which everybody ought 
to read, and which almost everybody of average intelligence 
would read with pleasure. It is serious but not dull, short but 
not scrappy, broad but not superficial.’ * 

The war years were thus occupied with constant practical 
activity. They were not years in which the partners pub- 
lished much. One or two smallish volumes however, must 
have a word of notice. In 1916, over his name, there 
appeared How to Pay for the War. In this, he anticipates the 
later Labour Party demand for a Capital Levy, in the form, 
here, of a demand that money should be conscripted when 
lives were being so treated. In another chapter in the same 
volume, he sets out the detailed practical scheme for the 
Nationalisation of the Mines which he was, three years later, 
to advocate in his evidence before the Sankey Commission. 
A year later, in 1917, appeared The Works Manager : a 
peculiarly bright example of his uncanny power of getting 
up, and getting inside of, any subject to which his prehensile 
mind addresses itself. At first hand, he knew little or 
nothing of works, or of w orks managers : yet here is the best 
text book on the latter topic, and one used, as such, by 
many employers, in the war years and after. In the same 
year, there was issued a revised edition of the remarkable 
chapter of nineteenth century history he had contributed, 
in 1909, to the Cambridge Modern History. In this, the 


influence of the war appears in the question mark affixed 
to the title, Towards Social Democracy ? 

A war-time product, again, and, at the same time, a 
permanent contribution to the theory of wages, as well as 
to the argument for sex-equality, is the small book, published 
in 1919, by Mrs. Webb. It is called The Wages of Men and 
Women — Should they be Equal ? 1 Few are the works that 
make the whole of their point with such force, clarity and 
genuine freedom from ancient prepossessions, of every sort, 
as this. It is, in its origin, another “ Minority Report.” 

In the summer of 1918, the Cabinet set up a Committee 
of six persons, to discover what principles, if any, should 
underlie the payment of wages to the millions of women 
then doing war work in substitution for men. The Treasury 
Agreement of March 1915 had been read by everyone, at 
the time, as giving a pledge on the part of the Government 
that such women should receive the same pay as the men 
whose work they undertook. The Ministry of Munitions 
in 1918 was claiming that this would cost too much. The 
Trade Unions asserted that, in fact, the women were not 
being paid the men’s rates, and that they ought to be so 
paid. The Committee was therefore instructed not only to 
lay down a general guiding principle, but to say whether, 
in fact, the 1915 pledge, was a pledge, and, if so, whether 
it had been carried out by Government Departments. On 
this latter point, Mrs. Webb found that a pledge had been 
given, and that it was being broken: the other members 
(Sir J. R. Atkin, in the chair: Dr. Janet Campbell: Sir 
Lynden Macassey: Sir William Mackenzie and Sir Matthew 
Nathan) said that the agreement of March 1915 was not a 
pledge. On the more general issue, she was, again, unable 
to agree: on the main ground that the 

4 ‘Majority assume, perhaps inadvertently, that industry is 
normally a function of the male, and that women, like non- 
1 Fabian Society. One Shilling. 


adults, arc only to be permitted to work for wages at special 
hours, for special rates of wages, under special supervision, and 
subject to special restrictions by the Legislature. I cannot accept 
this assumption. It seems to me that the Committee is called 
upon, in its consideration of the relation which should be main- 
tained between the wages of women and those of men, to deal 
equally with both sexes.” 

In fact, she who had been, in the ’nineties, opposed to the 
extension of the franchise to women, and quite lukewarm 
on the point till much later, here appears in her general 
analysis of the wages problem as a more thorough-going 
equalitarian than most of the Feminists of her day or ours. 

Her stand on war wages was, of course, hailed with 
enthusiasm, but not all those who were grateful to her 
have incorporated into their thinking her lucid reasoning 
on the broad question of the determination of wage-rates. 
Her conclusions may be summarised: at the same time it 
should be said that anyone who misses reading this small 
book makes a great mistake. She begins by positing that 
the “existing relation between the conditions of employment 
of men and women,” throughout the entire range of 

“is detrimental to the personal character and professional 
efficiency of both sexes, and inimical alike to the maximum 
productivity of the nation, and to the advancement of the several 
crafts and professions,” 

They are excluded or penalised on the ground that they are 
a class apart, but for the production of commodities and 
services, “Women no more constitute a class apart than do 
persons of a particular creed or race.” The time has come 
for the removal of all sex exclusions, and the opening of all 
posts and vocations to any qualified individuals, irrespective 
of sex, creed or race. The popular formula, “Equal Pay 
for Equal Work” is too ambiguous and too easily evaded 


to serve as a principle on which to base women’s wages. 
On the contrary, 

“The essential principle which should govern all systems of 
remuneration, whether in private industry or in public employ- 
ment, in manual working as well as brain working occupations, is 
that of clearly defined Occupational or Standard Rates, to be 
prescribed for all persons of like industrial grade; and, whether 
computed by time or by output, to be settled by collective agree- 
ment between representative organisations of the employers and 
the employed; and enforced, but as minima only, on the whole 
grade or vocation. There is no more reason for such Occupational 
or Standard Rates being made to differ according to the workers' 
sex than according to their race, creed, height or weight. A 
National Minimum of rest-time, education, sanitation and sub- 
sistence should be imposed by law, in which there should be no 
sex inequality.” 

Her Report — since here, as elsewhere, the Webbs are 
nothing if not comprehensive — includes a plan of taxation 
by means of w r hich the National Minimum proposals could 
be financed. Her plan for the regulation and maintenance 
of wages is as thorough, and as realistic, as the plan for the 
State control of the supply of coal which he sets out in How 
to Pay for the War. In regard to both, they are moving 
wholly in the region of the practical, and of the political. 

To try to sum the effect on them of the war-years is to 
attempt the impossible. Possible, however, is it to detach 
one very important effect. Their minds were, in a wholly 
new fashion, directed not only to political theory, but to 
political action ; and to political action as a sphere of effort 
for the public good to which they must direct their energies. 
His standing for London University as a Labour candidate 
in 1918 was something more than a gesture. It was the 
first step on a path that was to compel them to break right 
away from the planned routine they had pursued together 
for nearly thirty years. 



From every point of view, the years between 1919 and 
1924 are of cardinal significance in the life of the partners. 
They were, of course, actively concerned in public affairs: 
he, in particular, more prominently so than at any time 
since the Education Act controversy: they also published a 
whole series of highly important books. The affairs and 
the books are alike political in reference: that is the first 
great change registered. They are not only political: they 
are, in a broad sense, party-political: they represent the 
fact that the Webbs, who had striven from 1909 to 1912, 
with a very large measure of success, to get a great non-party 
organisation into being, had by now definitely, publicly, 
and with all that the gesture could have of meaning, ranged 
themselves with the Labour party, as a party of action, and 
were prepared to take their share in its action. 

The books of this period are A Constitution for the British 
Socialist Commonwealth , published in 1920: The Consumers' 
Co-operative Movement , published in 1922, and The Decay of 
Capitalist Civilisation , published in 1923. Statutory Author- 
ities for Special Purposes was also published in 1922, as was 
another volume in their Local Government series, that 
dealing with Prisons; but in regard to these last two, 
publication had been held over owing to the war; the 
characteristic works of the period are the other three, and 
especially the Constitution and The Decay . Although Con- 
sumers' Co-operation also, formally, belongs to the Local 
Government series, both in its political reference— especially 


in the latter half — and in its tone, it has close affiliations 
with the Socialist-political works. 

That “tone” deserves a word. It is more authoritative, 
more dogmatic, slightly louder than of old. To some 
extent, the “unassuming expert” has, for the nonce, been 
replaced by the positive propagandist. The narrative 
method is brighter; particularly in The Decay there are 
resemblances in phrasing to the subsequently published 
My Apprenticeship (1926) that suggest that Mrs. Webb, rather 
more often than is elsewhere usual, has held as well as guided 
the pen. But the true reason may very well be no more 
than the shift from the heaped-up material that had to be 
coped with in the earlier books, to the freer stage of indi- 
vidual expression of opinion, and individual planning of 
action. Anyhow, it is to these three books that any would-be 
defender of democracy may go for the best and most cogent, 
as well as far the most complete, argument, for it that has 
been set out in our time. 

Convinced democrats, they had believed, up to the 
outbreak of the war, that the large scale social and economic 
changes that had got to take place if formal were to be 
translated into social democracy, were progressively being 
brought about. The logic of efficiency dictated Collect- 
ivism : the forms of collective control were being forged by 
the Trade Unions and the Co-operative Societies, by the 
steady expansion of local government, and by the marked 
development of the Social services. They saw themselves 
as the Benthamites of a later epoch, permeating and con- 
verting: permeating and converting above all, the key 
people and the key positions. To this entire outlook, the 
war came as a deep and far-reaching shock. The very fact 
that they accepted the current views as to its inevitability, 
as to the necessity of fighting and fighting to the bitter end, 
compelled them to admit into their scheme of things forces 
and factors — irrational, dangerous, largely evil, horribly 



mysterious, hard to fit into their categories — and such as 
they had, hitherto, tranquilly left out. Their admission 
involved unsuspected perils to the entire presumed plan of 
orderly development. On top of the blind mysticism of 
war-time exaltation came the shattering impact of Revolu- 
tions, accelerated by sheer misery and despair. When 
Friedrich Adler shot Count Stuergkh, in 1916, the pro- 
paganda of the deed took on a new and horrid aspect. 
Direct action, Sovietism, Russian and Italian dictatorships 
with semi-religious sanctions, woke strange echoes in the 
minds even of British working men. Plainly, if those who 
believed in democracy were to save it, they must exert 
themselves : they must interfere. No longer could a rational 
social order be trusted to emerge out of the mere play of 
social and economic forces. 

As long ago as 1894, Sidney Webb, in a remarkable 
address to the Fabian Society (reprinted in Problems of 
Modern Industry) had said : 

“Depend upon it, the first step to getting what we want is a 
very clear and precise knowledge of what it is that we want. 

. . . I do not urge the universal adoption by all Socialists of a 
rigid practical programme, complete in all its details. But our 
one hope of successful propaganda lies in the possession of exact 
knowledge and very clear ideas of what it is we want to teach.” 

They certainly could claim that they had supplied that 
exact knowledge. In the Preface to their account of 
Consumers’ Co-operation, they state that they have spent 
thirty years in “investigating and describing democratic 
institutions.” Again, in regard to the entire fabric of the 
social services, they had outlined a precise plan of re- 
organisation in their Minority Report books. 

True, the whole of this, as they explained, could 
be accomplished within the frame-work of the existing 
Capitalist system. An early question with which they 
were faced in their Minority Report campaign, was, 


of course, — Is the Minority Report Socialism? To that, 
in a very early number of The Crusade , they replied : 

“The answer to this question depends upon what you mean 
by Socialism. If you mean the nationalisation of the means of 
production, then there is no Socialism, nor even any Socialistic 
tendency, in the Minority Report. But if you mean State 
action generally, then all the proposals are Socialistic. But so is 
the present Poor Law; so is the work of the Public Health 
authorities; so is the provision of Public Education: so, every 
bit as much, is the scheme of the Majority Report. In this sense, 
even a main drainage scheme is Socialism, in that it is provided 
gratuitously by the State for the use of all; but it is admittedly 
an indispensable piece of Socialism and commits no one to the 
State ownership of industry. So with the Minority scheme. It 
does not pre-judge the real issue between Socialists and Indi- 
vidualists, but it (or something like it) is indispensable if you 
wish to have a healthy foundation on which to build your 
super-structure, whether you intend it to be along Individualist 
lines or Socialist.” 

A sufficiently ingenious piece of controversial dialectic, 
this; it is cited here to indicate that, up to the time of 
the war, the line or pattern of approach was that suggested 
in the highly characteristic remark, “In this sense, even 
a main drainage scheme is Socialism. ” 

In the broader sense, they never altered that approach; 
but the war, as a fact; the new experiences wartime con- 
ditions brought to both; the grave threat to democracy 
they shrewdly sensed, in many quarters; the infection of 
the Socialist mind itself by Communist, Syndicalist, and 
other ideas, all deriving their appeal from the belief in 
force — the combined effect of this was to impel them to 
take up, swiftly and resolutely, the other part of the task: 
the positive declaration both of Socialist plan and of 
Socialist method. 

As a member of the Labour Party Executive, he had, 
in the years between 1915 and 1918, contributed potently 
to the two transforming changes that made Labour a 



National party in a sense in which it had not, before, 
fully deserved that name. In 1918, at a Special Summer 
Conference, held in London in June, the Party adopted 
a new Constitution, and set out its policy in new terms. 
For press and public, at the time, the superficial picturesque- 
ness of the appeal made by M. Kerensky, and his kiss to 
Arthur Henderson, were the outstanding incidents of this 
conference. Its real, and very far-reaching significance, 
however, lay in the new organisation of the party on the 
definite and explicit basis of a membership open to “ workers 
by hand and brain”; coupled with the acceptance of a plan 
of campaign animated by a clear and large vision. No 
longer was it possible, with any accuracy, to say either that 
Labour was a ‘class party/ or that its proposals were ‘in the 
air.’ These things of course, went on being said: that is 
politics: but there was no justification for them. The plan 
was set out in detail, in a pamphlet entitled Labour and The 
New Social Order . In his Election appeal to the graduates 
of London University in 1918, Professor Webb ingeniously 
refers to this document as one perusing it critically, from 
an economist’s standpoint, and finding it sound, as well 
as appealing. With approval, he quotes the closing passage : 

“The Labour Party is far from assuming that it possesses a 
key to open all locks; or that any policy which it can formulate 
will solve all the problems that beset us. But we deem it im- 
portant to ourselves as well as to those who may, on the one hand, 
wish to join the Party, or, on the other, to take up arms against 
it, to make quite clear and definite our aim and purpose. The 
Labour Party wants that aim and purpose, as set forth in the 
preceding pages with all its might. It calls for more warmth in 
politics for much less apathetic acquiescence in the miseries that 
exist, for none of the cynicism that saps the life of leisure. On 
the other hand, the Labour Party has no belief in any of the 
problems of the world being solved by Good Will alone. Good 
Will without knowledge is Warmth without Light. Especially 
in all the complexities of politics, in the still undeveloped Science 
of Society, the Labour Party stands for increased study, 


for the scientific investigation of each succeeding problem, for the 
deliberate organisation of research, and for a much more rapid 
dissemination among the whole people of all the science that 
exists. And it is perhaps specially the Labour Party that has the 
duty of placing this Advancement of Science in the forefront 
of its political programme. What the Labour Party stands for 
in all fields of life is, essentially, Democratic Co-operation ; 
and Co-operation involves a common purpose which can be 
agreed to; a common plan which can be explained and dis- 
cussed, and such a measure of success in the adaptation of means 
to ends as will ensure a common satisfaction. An autocratic 
Sultan may govern without science if his whim is Iaw\ A Pluto- 
cratic Party may choose to ignore science, if it is heedless whether 
its pretended solutions of social problems that may w in political 
triumphs ultimately succeed or fail. But no Labour Party can 
hope to maintain its position unless its proposals are, in fact, 
the outcome of the best Political Science of its time; or to fulfil 
its purpose unless that science is continually wresting new fields 
from human ignorance. Hence, although the Purpose of the 
Labour Party must, by the law of its being, remain for all 
time unchanged, its Policy and its Programme will, we hope, 
undergo a perpetual development, as knowledge grows, and as 
new phases of the social problem present themselves, in a con- 
tinually finer adjustment of our measures to our ends. If Law 
is the Mother of Freedom, Science, to the Labour Party, must 
be the Parent of Law.” 

To-day it is no secret that the whole eighteen-page document 
was his handiwork. In the turmoil and heat of the 191ft 
election, it had little effect. In the years lx* tween 191ft 
and 1922, however, this ample and noble statement of 
aims closely correlated to a well-knit programme of practic- 
able action, was a powerful instrument of conversion, and 
helped greatly towards the ‘swing” of 1922, 1923 and 1924. 

They did more than this however. In 1920, they pub- 
lished A Constitution for the British Socialist Commonwealth. 
Very shortly after the close of the war, M. Camille Huysmans, 
as Secretary of the International Socialist Bureau, invited 
the constituent parties in the different countries to submit 
reports upon “The socialisation of industries and services, 



and upon the constitution that should be adopted by any 
nation desirous of organising its life upon Socialist prin- 
ciples. ” For the Fabian Society, as one of these constituent 
parties, the Webbs accordingly prepared what to them 
“seemed most likely to be useful” — i.e. not any “brief 
statement of abstract principles or vague generalisations,” 
supposed to be of universal application, but “a definite and 
concrete proposal, worked out in some detail, for one 
country only.” Their book is this proposal. 

They begin by “briefly noting,” as facts in advanced 
industrial countries, on the one hand, a great waste of 
productive power and gross inequality leading to penury 
and destitution: and, on the other 

“The continued existence of the functionless rich — of persons 
w ho deliberately live by owning instead of by working, and whose 
futile occupations, often licentious pleasures, and inherently 
insolent manners undermine the intellectual and moral standards 
of the community.” 

These facts they were to amplify, with much well-directed 
harshness, in The Decay of Capitalist Civilisation , three years 
later: here, they merely touch upon them, and pass on, at 
once, to establish the premise from which they have con- 
sistently approached the problem — the premise of demo- 

“The central wrong of the Capitalist system is neither the 
poverty of the poor nor the riches of the rich; it is the powder 
which the mere ow nership of the instruments of production gives 
to a relatively small section of the community over the actions of 
their fellow-citizens, and over the mental and physical environ- 
ment of successive generations.” 

At the close of a “survey of the ground ” which occupies the 
first part of the book they say: 

“It is abundantly clear that what is wrong with the world to-day 
is not too much Democracy but too little, not too many 
thoroughly Dcmocractic institutions, but too few.” 


Nowhere has their fundamental article of faith been 
more straightly set out than in a book that is apt, nowadays, 
to be left on one side on the assumption that it is “out of 
date.” It may be that in its constitution-sketching, more 
homage is paid than now seems relevant to the then fashion- 
able doctrine of “Functionalism.” But if their Constitution 
— retaining the Monarch but abolishing the House of Lords, 
— with its elaborate dual organisation of citizen and voca- 
tional representation, may be left, or revived only for 
interesting comparison with the five-fold organisation of the 
Russian State, the book must be read, for other things in it. 
Above all, for its argument on democracy, as a positive 
instrument for 

“obtaining, for all the people . . . that development of per- 
sonality, and that enlargement of faculty and desire dependent 
on the assumption of responsibility and the exercise of will.” 

Democracy, in their view, in so far as it involves the con- 
scious consent of the many, has the “spiritual value” of 
substituting persuasion for force. It may be that personal 
self-determination remains the “supreme stimulus to self 
activity,” but, in modern society, complete individualism is 
impracticable, politically and industrially. The actual 
problem is one of re-modelling existing institutions “in such 
a way as to evoke, in all men and women, and not merely 
in a favoured few, all their latent powers,” and so setting 
free the individual “not of any favoured social class but from 
one end of the community to the other” for that full life 
towards which organisation, whether economic, social or 
political, is only a means. It is against the waste of life 
that their lances are here set. One feels how deeply the war 
really stirred them. It stirred their minds : it sent them back 
to fundamental issues, to an interrogation of values. 

To a large extent, the reader, here, is in the moral 
atmosphere of My Apprenticeship : of its controversy between 
“the ego that affirms” and the “ego that denies.” The 



Webbs here face the two questions that, for ever, in differing 
forms, agitate the thinking and feeling mind of man: ques- 
tions that may be crudely stated as — Has every human 
being a soul, or only a few? — and — Has the universe a 
meaning? Is it a blind chaos, or an order expressive of 
some pattern none of us as yet completely sees, none of us 
perhaps can ever see? They affirm, on both: souls are 
universal: the universe is an order and not a chaos. They 
may, indeed in their writing they often do, overstate the 
orderliness of the order : but the charmlessness of the presen- 
tation ought not to blind the reader to the fact that, for 
them, orderliness, while a good in itself, is also — and this is 
really more important — a means to a higher and wholly 
different kind of good. It may be that the freedom and 
fullness of life which they desire for others, as keenly as for 
themselves, leaves out certain elements : but the passion that 
keeps them going is a desire to extend to all those things 
that they themselves see as good. This passion speaks 
clearly in the latter half of The Constitution . 

If the defence of Democracy is here their most important 
contribution and vital purpose, the book also contains a 
luminous exposition of the other highly characteristic element 
in their thought as political Socialists — Gradualism. “We 
do not foresee any sudden or simultaneous termination of 
the Capitalist system.” They are speaking here, of course, 
of Great Britain, where, historically, 

“it took the Capitalist system several centuries to become the 
dominant form in . . . industry. The process of transition 
from profit-making industry to public service which has during 
the past quarter of a century made such great strides, and has 
been accelerated by the great war, will clearly continue for some 
time, and may at no one moment ever be completely accom- 

Our race “does not take to catastrophic changes.” Large 
sections of the British working class, and the whole of the 


professional brain workers, hold, “ rightly or wrongly, that 
they have a good deal more to lose than their chains.” 

A revolution, well-nigh unthinkable in Britain, would 
leave the real job still to be done. ‘‘The transformation of 
the social and industrial machinery of a whole country 
takes time. It cannot be improvised. ” There must, there- 
fore, not only be a plan of socialisation, but also one for the 
control over those industries and services that, in the 
transitional period, long or short, are not “ripe” for that, 
and have to be left in private hands until they “ripen.” 
The fulcrum of transforming change is the National Mini- 
mum: “its universal adoption will be the foundation of the 
Socialist Commonwealth." So wrote the “reactionary’ 
Webbs" in 1920, after, as they mildly recall, twenty years 
of propaganda for a projx>sal that was not yet included in 
the “Now for Socialism" policy of the I.L.P. That, again, 
cannot be enforced in the twinkling of an eye. The use of 
Factory Acts and Trade Boards Acts to secure that 

' no worker, however defenceless, shall fall below the National 
Minimum of subsistence and leisure for the time being prescribed 
by the Social Parliament," 

should be reinforced by the Ixxal Authorities in securing a 
similar National Minimum in housing and in public: health; 
and by a National Minimum of Education, open to every 
boy and girl, irrespective of the means of their parents. 

Ixxal Authorities must care for Town planning and 
for the countryside; there might well lx* set up a Standing 
Committee of parliament on “Common Amenity and 
Public Beauty." As effective instruments for the execution 
of this programme, they suggest price control, publicity of 
accounts, limitation of profits, and a reformed tax system. 
“Measurement and Publicity" arc the canons through 
whose application the “ripening" process may be speeded 
up. Where expropriation is feasible, compensation will be 



paid, on the system actually employed when, for example, a 
Local authority takes over a Gas company or acquires 
property for street widening or other social purposes. When 
it takes place, the administration of the industries and 
services thus socialised will not be bureaucratic, but effected 
through ad hoc National Boards, decentralised in method, 
and providing for participation in control by the workers at 
every stage. Such socialisation of the main nerves on which 
common life depends carries with it not the abolition of 
private ownership in the articles of daily use, but the 
extension of private ownership to millions now excluded. 
To the Socialist, “the very demarcation of the boundaries 
of private property implies its maintenance and its endorse- 
ment, “ even its large increase, outside the area of what 
J. A. Hobson has called “ini-property'’ — i.e. property in the 
instruments of production. Those instruments will be 
socialised; so, property in other things will, for the first time, 
be a possibility for the many; saving will go on, and capital 
thereby be provided. 

The transition period, they frankly foresee, is dangerous 
and difficult. 

“What is needed to avert the possible disasters of the transition 
period is a development of the spirit of social service, on the one 
hand, and of science on the other.” 

More science in the organisation of production — and pro- 
duction, they underline, not of material commodities only — 
is indispensable. Since they wrote, indeed, science has been 
applied exclusively and intensively to material productivity, 
with the result that “over-production ” is bringing our world 
to starvation. 'They foresaw, in 1920, that the essential 
dilemma is not merely that distribution has not been 
correlated to the new productive efficiency, but that minds 
seem inadequate to the vast task of coping with the new 
control over matter that is at their disposal. So, they write: 


“There is good ground for expecting discovery in physical science 
to go forwards by leaps and bounds, in a way that may presently 
transform all our dealings with forms of force and kinds of sub- 
stance. But what is no less needed than this greater knowledge 
of things is greater knowledge of men: of the conditions of the 
successful workings of social institutions. That on which the 
world to-day most needs light is how to render more effective 
every form of social organisation: how to make more socially 
fertile the relationships between men. . . . There is no peril 
so dangerous as the failure to get community of education be- 
tween classes.” 

Like many genuine prophets, they had to see their 
w'amings go unheeded, and watch the facts realising their 
fears. But they stuck to their task. When, three years later, 
in 1923, the peril they apprehended seemed to them to 
have come dangerously nearer, they took up their pens 
again, and framed in The Decay of Capitalist Civilisation an 
indictment and a warning. It is a sombre and an eloquent 
warning: a prevision of that collapse of which we all chatter 
nowadays. A harsh indictment: yes; but a tremendously 
documented one. As they say of Marx, one can say of this 
book, that no one who reads it “can ever again fall under 
the illusion that capitalists, as such, are morally respectable.” 
Both as denunciation and as warning, The Decay is impres- 
sive: in it, they “let themselves go,” when, for the first time 
in all their long years of effort and study, they “tell Capit- 
alism what they think of it.” At the same time, they arc 
hardly as much at home in this dark and negative region 
as they arc in their more constructive works. The Decay is 
a great pamphlet; there is more of the stuff that lives in The 
Consumers' Co-operative Movement : a book, already discussed in 
its bearing on their general scheme of Socialism, which falls 
into place here, too, since its later chapters very clearly 
indicate the line of thought that was moving the minds of 
the authors to a great decision — the decision to enter 
political life: to go into Parliament. 



It was an exceedingly difficult decision, above all in that 
it must involve a break of the close texture of their daily 
life. If one of them went into parliament, the other would, 
in a sense, be stranded. They were both, by now, over 
sixty: and sixty is late to make a complete change of habits, 
occupation, routine. They love their routine; to change it 
was a hardship in itself: a hardship rendered infinitely more 
severe by the certain cost in separation. That they ever 
contemplated the sort of “family membership” later almost 
fashionable, seems unlikely; or that there was ever any 
doubt as to which of them it was to be who was to be the 
member. The question was always one of his going in; 
following, to that extent, in the footsteps of his hero, John 
Stuart Mill. His work on the County Council, up to 1910, 
and his work with the Labour party, above ail on its 
National Executive, since 1915, marked him out for the 
ordeal — for as an ordeal he felt it. He had stood for London 
University, in 1918; that however was little more than a 
gallant gesture; there never had been any serious question 
of his getting in. Yet, so far as it went, it was a significant 
gesture, and felt, by the partners themselves, to be such. 
Step by step, they got nearer to Westminster, in their minds, 
after that. With characteristic magnanimity, she pressed 
him. He still hesitated. His hesitations were finally routed 
by pressure from quite another quarter: from the Miners’ 
Federation of Great Britain. 

In the 1920 edition of The History of Trade Unionism they 
note the rise to predominant importance of the Miners as 
the “outstanding feature of the Trade Union world between 
1890 and 1920/* In the first decade of the nineteenth 
century, the Miners threw up a great national leader in 
Robert Smillie : under his leadership, the Miners’ Federation 
of Great Britain came into being and made a series of 
tremendous efforts to redress the terrible hardships of the 
life of the miners and of the lives of the women and children 


of the coalfields. 1912 saw the biggest national strike till 
then experienced in Great Britain: its purpose being to force 
the coal-owners to meet the gravest cases of hardship and 
injustice, those experienced by men working in “abnormal 
places/’ Its result was the 1912 Act, laying down, not a 
national minimum, as the miners had hoped, but district 
minima, adjusted by Joint Boards in the various areas. 
About the time of the outbreak of war, the miners had 
entered into an association with the Railwaymen and the 
Transport Workers — later generally known as the Triple 
Alliance, — with a view to making a new effort to break 
down the blank refusal of the fifteen hundred separate 
colliery owners and companies to consider any kind of 
national basis for the settlement of wage rates etc. 

During the War, the miners thought of nothing but their 
country’s need. Every kind of sectional claim w r as dropped; 
they flocked to the colours with such zeal that they had, 
later, to be forbidden to leave the mines, and were sent 
back, in large numbers, from the front. The War bonus 
granted in 1917 and 1918 by no means met the rise that 
had taken place in the cost of living, yet, until the war ended, 
the miners kept silence, out of sheer patriotism. Only then 
did the Federation, after going through all the elaborate 
provisions as to ballots, giving of notice etc., laid down in 
the Agreements, in February 1919, demand a 30 per cent 
rise in wages, a nominal six-hours day, and the Nationalisa- 
tion of the mines, which were, like the railways, still under 
Government control. 

Its position was strong. It had able leadership, with Frank 
Hodges, then the rising star of the Trade Union world, as 
full-time Secretary and Robert Smillie as full-time President. 
It had its superb war service record behind it, and, on 
elementary grievances, a powerful human case. Since the 
nation’s stocks of coal were very low — London, for example, 
having no more than two days’ supply — the strike threat 



was serious. So strong, indeed, was the miners’ case, that 
when the Government offered, under special Act of Parlia- 
ment, to set up a Statutory Commission, presided over by a 
Judge of the High Court, and pledged itself to abide by and 
act upon its findings, the Conference called by the Miners’ 
Federation of Great Britain was far from unanimous for 
acceptance. They did accept, finally, only on the specific 
understanding that strike notices should be suspended for 
but three weeks, within which time an Interim Report was 
to be presented by the Commission; and, further, that the 
Federation should nominate not only three of its own 
members, to balance three coal-owners, but three out of the 
six experts who were to be associated with them. The 
three experts whom the M.F.G.B. selected were Sidney 
Webb, R. H. Tawney, and Sir Leo Chiozza-Money. 

The Act setting up the Royal Commission gave it very 
wide powers, and expressly instructed it to go into 

4 ‘Any scheme that may be submitted to, or formulated by, the 
Commissioners for the future organisation of the Coal Industry, 
whether on the present basis, on the basis of joint control, 
nationalisation, or any other basis.” 

Lord Sankey (at that time, Mr. Justice Sankey) was 
appointed to preside over this Grand Inquest into the Coal 
Industry. The Sankey Commission held its first meeting on 
March 3rd, 1919, and continued, with a short break, to sit 
in public several times a week, up to the beginning of June 
1919. It not only sat in public; it was, from the point of 
view of the public, the show of the day: the focus of interest 
and of conversation. The newspapers “ featured” it — as 
well they might. To hear the Duke of Northumberland 
cross-examined by Sidney Webb on “ living by owning,” and 
on the intricate details of a vast business of which the 
questioner knew infinitely more than he did, was a dramatic 
as well as intellectual diversion. Alternating with great 



colliery magnates like the Duke and the Marquesses of Bute 
and Le^aji^nderry, were miners’ wives from various parts 
of the laSfti, bankers like Mr. Walter Leaf, great administrators 
like Lord Haldane, and economists like Professor Pigou, 
Mr. J. A. Hobson and Mr. Arthur Bowley. 

The early stages of the Commission’s work were devoted 
to the miners’ claim for an increase in wage rates and a 
reduction of hours. The impressive picture of the hardships 
endured by the miner and his family that emerged from the 
proceedings was then new to the great public. It was set, 
in startling contrast, against the thirteen million pounds of 
average annual profit flowing to the owners in 1909-14, and 
the fantastic war-time figures — thirty-seven and three- 
quarter millions of profit in 1916 and as much in 1918; 
there was no resisting the conclusion that some advance in 
pay and some reduction in hours must be conceded. Three 
Reports on this were presented ; that of owners, that of the 
miners, and, as a middle way between the two, that signed 
by Mr. Justice Sankey, Sir Thomas Royden, Sir Arthur 
Duckham, and Mr. Arthur Balfour (of Sheffield). The 
proposals of this last group carried with them the significant 
addendum, that “the present system of ownership and of 
working stands condemned and some other, unified system 
must be substituted for it.” Whereupon, on March 20th, 
1919, Mr. Bonar Law (acting Premier) stated, in the House, 
and next day wrote to confirm, that the Government 

“are prepared to carry out the spirit and in the letter the recom- 
mendations of Mr. Justice Sankey ’s Report.” 

On this clear understanding, the Federation withdrew the 
strike notices. 

When the Commission resumed its work, its enquiries 
were directed to the larger issues of ownership and control. 
On these, two members of the Commission, Sidney Webb and 
Sir Leo Money, took the stand to give evidence — a procedure 



somewhat unusual, although it had been done also by a 
member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law, and 
criticised at the time by those who were beginning, more 
and more openly, to express their hostility to the Com- 
mission. The statement about nationalisation contained in 
the Sankey Report, a document which the Government had 
promised to honour in letter and in spirit, made the Com- 
mission look dangerous. From the point of view of those 
who were, in the press and elsewhere, at this stage, rallying 
opinion against re-organisation, to have Sidney Webb give 
evidence was, of course, a very serious mistake. 

The basis of his evidence was a chapter in a work 
published by him in 1916, entitled How to Pay for the War , 
containing a scheme for the Nationalisation of the Coal 
Supply. It was a perfectly clear and coherent scheme for 
State ownership, financed by a Government issue of stock. 

When he took the witness stand at the end of April 1919, 
he declared, bluntly, that “the root cause of the relative 
inefficiency of the British coal supply is its foundation on 
private profit making.” The supply of coal ought to be a 
public service, run “with all due regard to economy.” It 
could be run, when such a public service, so he believed, 
with a consequent greater efficiency. Some of the Com- 
missioners tried, hard, to pin him down to saying what he 
had not in fact said : but without conspicuous success. Thus, 
Mr. R. W. Cooper asked: 

“Do you suggest that persons who work arc animated by a love 
of work rather than personal advantage to themselves?” 

He replied: 

“I do not say ‘love of work/ Unfortunately, only a small pro- 
portion of the people who work in the world are able to work in 
a way which they can reasonably be expected to love; but I do 
suggest that the majority of the work in the world is done already 
out of a sense of duty. That may seem strange, but I hold to 

if ** 


When it was politely suggested to him that 4 4 he had evolved 
the plan of Nationalisation out of his head/’ he replied that 
he had seen — 

“a very great substitution of public administration for private 
enterprise going on in the world for the last generation : probably 
greater than most people are aware.” 

The point which it seemed hardest to get the minds of his 
opponents to seize was that — 

“The object of a nationalised industry is not to make, or lose 
money. The object of a nationalised coal industry is to supply 
coal, and supply it as required in the best possible way, and at 
as little cost as possible.” 

He refuted the notion that the servants of a public authority 
would control it, illicitly. 

“My opinion is — I am speaking from experience in this matter — 
that when the persons employed by a Public Authority have 
public opinion upon their side, by which I mean public opinion 
very largely of their own class, and the Public Authority gives 
way, there is no harm; but directly a person employed by a 
Public Authority goes beyond the point at which they have 
public opinion on their side — the public opinion of their ow r n 
class — then the Government, or the Public Authority, is very 
strong, even stronger than a private capitalist is, or might 

Mr. Evan Williams, the leader of the owners, put it to him 
that he would not find anyone on the owners' side who had 
“any idea that Nationalisation would be an improvement 
in the management of the industry.” “I am sorry,” came 
the reply, in bland and courteous tones, 

“to say that I did not find many of them who had any ideas at 
all; they were practical men.” 

“Without ideas?” 

“Yes. ... I should attach very great value to the opinion 
of practical men upon the subject, if I could get it, but they are 
so seldom willing to form an opinion.” 



At a later stage, he pointed out that the question the Com- 
mission was addressed to was one of statesmanship: and 
statesmanship required ideas: even theories. 

“In the English language — especially on the lips of practical 
men — ‘theorist* is generally used as a term of abuse. It really 
ought to be the highest term of praise.” 

Later on another coal-owner, Mr. Forgie, took him on. 

“Private ownership is, of course, impossible without profit?” 

“Very likely. I should not necessarily have condemned it in 
that way, but it may be so.” 

“And you are absolutely against profit making?” 

“No. I merely suggested that it was a rather low and cor- 
rupting motive and that there were better motives on which we 
might rely, increasingly; but, of course, we are all strangely 
mixed, and I do not say that we can entirely free ourselves from 
profit making.” 

What he did unsparingly condemn was the chaos in the 
industry. When asked whether there was “any system which 
was not chaotic?” he replied, 

“Any system which is not unified is chaotic. The very basis 
of the private ownership of collieries is the competition and 
jostling of one with another.” 

“Is not all improvement brought about in that way?” 

“No, or very little improvement, in my opinion.” 

This is not the place in which to re-tell, in any detail, the 
tragically familiar story of the miners’ betrayal. The Sankey 
Commission, as everyone knows, on the second part of its 
task issued four reports. The four were, however, unanimous 
on two very important points. 

First, the coal measures should be acquired by the State, 
to which should be transferred, therefore, all royalties, 
mineral rights, and wayleaves. 

Second, for the distribution of coal, the machinery of 
local authorities and the Co-operative Societies ought to be 
further utilised. 


No action on the first point has been attempted. The 1924 
and 1929 Labour Government did a good deal on the 

On the questions of the ownership and organisation of the 
mines, there was full agreement between the Chairman, Mr. 
Justice Sankey, and the six Labour members of the Com- 
mission; they recommended the establishment of national 
ownership, exercised through a National Mining Council, 
and the continuation of Government control until this was 
worked out. In the details of administration there were 
differences between the plan proposed by Mr. Justice Sankey 
and that put forward by the Miners: but on the main points 
they were in agreement, and that meant that these main 
points in a plan of Nationalisation, were advocated by a 
majority of the Commission. The Coal-owners with two 
experts, i.c. five in all, rejected unification altogether. Sir 
A. Duckham, in a separate Report, advocated a scheme of 
unified trustification. 

By the time the Reports appeared, few politicians had 
any doubt that, despite the loud talk at the time of the Elec- 
tion of 1918 by Winston Churchill and others in favour of 
the nationalisation of railways, etc., Mr. Lloyd George and 
his colleagues were going to let the miners down. So it 
proved. The Government took no action on the Reports. 
An official strike in the Yorkshire coal field played into 
their hands. The M.F.G.B. made an effort at rousing some 
strong assertion of public feeling on their side, in their 
‘'Mines for the Nation” campaign. It failed. The miners 
were forced back on the purely wages issue. For a short 
time, the hard realities of the mining situation were masked 
by the Ruhr occupation, and a great coal strike in the U.S.A. 
which stimulated the export trade, sent up prices and wages. 
By 1921, however, this purely artificial prosperity collapsed; 
German Reparations coal began to pour into markets already 
overstocked and fed from new, home, sources of supply. At 



last, the Government acted. Its action was disastrous. Sud- 
denly, four months ahead of the date solemnly given again 
and again, they de-controlled the coal industry. This sudden 
bombshell broke up the negotiations, directed towards a 
national plan, then going on between miners and owners, 
precipitated the 1921 dispute, and led straight to the col- 
lapse of the Triple Alliance on the day known in Labour 
annals as Black Friday. 

The failure of industrial effort was glaring; the economic 
outlook black as it could be. Once again, therefore, the 
miners looked to political action, as a way out of the cruel 
impasse in which they were suffering. They had already, 
a considerable number of M.P.’s: indeed a majority of the 
party membership; and among them were men, like the 
late Vernon Hartshorn, of absolutely outstanding ability. 
Too often, however, they were apt to select as candidates 
men whose long and honourable experience as Trade Union 
officials meant that they were tired, and not able to turn 
effectively to a wholly new type of effort. So, Sidney Webb, 
close to their counsels during the dark years both before and 
after the Sankey Commission, urged them, at this crisis in 
their fate, to select certain really able outside champions 
and experts whom they could trust, and send them to 
Westminster to state their case there. Frank Hodges had too 
big a job on hand; the Federation rule which barred the 
Secretary from other work was sound; but why, he urged, 
did they not find a really winnable seat for a man like R. H. 
Tawney, whose serv ices to them had already been of incal- 
culable worth? Well, came the reply, we’ll think of that; but 
why not stand yourself? You are the ideal man, for us: if 
you will stand, we’ll do it. This was no sudden impulse on 
the part of the Miners. Their votes in 1919 returned Webb 
top of the poll to the National Executive of the Party, 
although at that time his membership of that body was but 
four years old. They knew him. They meant, very 



thoroughly, what they said. They wanted him in the 
House, as one of their M.P.’s. When they pressed and 
pressed hard, the ingenious advocate was caught. When 
they continued to press, and Mrs. Webb seconded their 
pressure, he gave way. He allowed himself to be adopted 
by Scaham Harbour, a mining constituency in Durham 

The Miners assured them that Scaham, in spite of the 
temporary aberration of 1918, which had returned a 
Coupon-Tory representative to Westminster, was a safe 
seat for their nominee. Its history suggested that; adoption 
there was certainly a totally different proposition from 
adoption as Labour candidate for London University: 
it meant getting in. But, having made their decision, with 
all that it meant, the Webbs left nothing to chance. 
They addressed themselves to the organisation and capture 
of Scaham with their customary thoroughness. At nine 
elections for the London County Council, he had proved 
that there was little he did not know about electioneering, 
and no trouble that he was not prepared to take in order to 
make the utmost use of what he regarded as an educational 
opportunity. As such, therefore, somewhat to the amazement 
of the miners and their wives, he and Mrs. Webb proceeded 
to treat the business of “ nursing *’ Scaham. 

The constituency was organised, as it had never been 
organised before. I remember going to dine at 41 Grosvcnor 
Road very shortly after his adoption, and finding them 
both, enthusiastically, “on the job.” They had made up 
their minds, and were throwing themselves into the new 
task with gusto. They certainly made it uncommonly 
interesting. Already they had got the history of mining in 
general, and of mining in County Durham in particular, 
at their fingers’ ends. Their next step was to map out the 
place, on the basis of the institutions and organisations, 
preferably the non-political ones— through which they were 



going to get at the people who lived in it. Permeation was 
then to be applied, on the best Fabian lines. They were 
card-indexing the Clubs and Institutes, the religious and 
semi-religious bodies, the educational and semi-educational 
associations, the P.S.A.’s, the League of Nations Union 
branches, the Friendly Societies, the Welfare Leagues of 
multifarious kinds that they had already discovered, and 
were thirsty for suggestions as to other lines of approach. 
They were planning how to get into them all, not with 
political speeches, but with innocuous sounding lectures — 
lectures about the History of Mining, of Trade Unionism, 
of the Social Services and so on. The women, the co- 
operators, the Temperance people, the Mothers’ Unions, 
the literary, debating, philosophical and scientific societies; 
they knew what they were, and where they were, and who 
they were, and were alert to cope with them. They had 
mapped out the pubs as well as the clubs. They were plan- 
ning to go down a great deal; and they did. 

1921 was not many months old before he had got out 
a History of the Durham Miners . In its Preface, he says, 
with his habitual modesty, 

“I have merely put together in a convenient form the results of 
some researches among the Home Office papers in the Public 
Record Office, and other contemporary records and pro- 
ceedings, with what I have gleaned from public sources.” 

With this admirable hand-book in their pockets, the partners 
spent w'eek after week in Seaham, lecturing to the people, 
also getting to know them. The miners and their women- 
folk had never encountered politics quite in this form before; 
but they soon took to it with zest. They flocked to the 
lectures, and sat there, mostly silent, with bright eyes and 
tense attentiveness; no interruptions, no applause even, 
until the end, when a round of deafening cheers expressed 
their appreciation. For the Webbs, this new contact with 


the miners and their wives: the teas in their homes, the talks 
with them round the fire, after the meetings; is really one 
of the romantic episodes in their lives. To the crude, 
external view, he was an absurd candidate for Scaham, and 
she was not much better. The Times was so impressed with 
this absurdity, indeed, that when the result came out in 
1922, they misprinted figures in which they could not 
believe; his immense majority appeared in their early edi- 
tions as a series of noughts. Actually, the forthright, intelli- 
gent, warmhearted men and women of Durham County 
were more than impressed by this, at first, strange candidate. 
As they got to know him personally — his record, of course, 
they already knew — they acquired a warm affection for him. 
They have an instinctive power of separating the real from 
the sham: here was something real. His utter and trans- 
parent disinterestedness was a fact they saw, almost at once, 
and never let go. Her, too, they liked; she did not frighten 
them, as she often frightens the shallow. 

When the casting of votes took place, in the autumn of 
1922, he not only got in: he achieved a record majority 
of over eleven thousand, 20,203 votes being given to him 
against 9,000 for hi* opponent. Nor, afterwards, did Scaham 
ever waver in its allegiance. His majority went up in I 9 2 3 » 
and was steady in 1924 when the Red Letter undermined 
so many apparently solid majorities. For as long as he was 
willing to represent it, the constituency was his. 

As M.P. for Scaham, he took his seat in 1922. With that, 
a new- chapter m the life of the firm of Webb plainly opens. 



Entering Parliament in the autumn of 1922, Sidney 
Webb remained in active politics until the autumn of 1931 — 
a period of nine years. After a twelve-month as a private 
member, he became in 1924, for nine months, President of 
the Board of Trade. From 1924 on, there followed a spell 
of four and a half years during which the Labour Party was 
in opposition; in 192ft, seeing that an election could not be 
long delayed, and foreseeing that it would bring about a 
very close balance of parties, and, possibly, another period 
of Labour minority rule, he determined to withdraw. His 
view then was that having gone in ‘‘under compulsion ” 
and served for six years, he was entitled to come out. He 
had, as he put it, “other things to do”; things really more 
congenial. Moreover he was on the eve of being seventy. 
He was not permitted to carry out this intention; instead, 
he stayed on, to be, for a second time, a Minister of the 
Crown, and to become what his wife called “the individual 
who goes under the fantastical name of Lord Passfield.” 

His parliamentary experience covers, therefore, one of the 
most difficult and diversified periods of British political 
history, as of the history of the world. It was a period 
throughout overshadowed by the grim and threatening 
economic consequences of the war and of the Peace Treaties, 
haunted by the spectres of Militarism and Nationalism, and 
darkened by the instant presence in most countries of grave 
Unemployment and acute industrial dislocation and distress. 
If some people, early on in this period, began to talk of the 



“collapse of Capitalism ” : and, later, of an imminent inter- 
national catastrophe such as might sweep modern civilisation 
as completely away as ev er the barbarian hordes did that of 
Rome, he saw something worse. Not any visible dramatic 
event, but a slow bleeding to death was how he diagnosed 
the situation, in 1932. 

To any democratic faith, these years represented a time of 
severe and cumulative strain. Democracy was, outside 
Great Britain, being challenged in action, as well as under- 
mined in thought. The second Russian Revolution of 1917 
installed one Dictatorship; 1922 saw another established in 
Fascist Italy. The stability of systems based on the denial of 
liberty spread corrosive doubts of free institutions, in ever- 
widening circles. Republican and scmi-Socialist Germany, 
with superhuman efforts, pulled itself up out of the trough 
of defeat and blockade, and enjoyed a brief spell of apparent 
recovery with the cessation of the Ruhr occupation, only to 
be plunged again into despair through the pressure of 
Reparations and Versailles controls, and compelled to turn, 
desperately, to ideas of force which had, by its best minds, 
been abandoned. In the United States, stronghold of Capit- 
alism, a bland conviction that all was well maintained itself 
up to the opening of 1930, only to be swept out of recollection 
by the impact of the delayed economic slump. Depression 
then made Americans arch disseminators of doubts about 
democratic institutions. 

Such was the international and the economic back- 
ground of nine years of close personal concern with political 
responsibility and close contact with representative demo- 
cracy, unwillingly undertaken by an actor who gravely 
doubted his own competence in the role. True, he defended 
the House of Commons against the common charges of 
having “degenerated” and of now failing to command the 
public interest and respect it had once enjoyed. Those who 
made these charges, he said in 1928, in an interview with the 



London Observer , simply did not know their history. There 
was neither any lack of public interest nor any 4 ‘degenera- 
tion, whether in “capacity or integrity, in education or 
manners.” His defence of parliament, however, was not the 
one that would be produced, spontaneously, by the M.P. 
who thinks greatly of himself, or of the institution with which 
he is connected. 

“What the House of Commons secures for the people of Great 
Britain is the paramount advantage of being able, every few years, 
to change its Government, lawfully, peaceably, without loss of 
strength and without social disturbance.’ * 

This advantage was certainly secured, during the nine years 
in question, since it saw no fewer than five Elections — in 
1922, 1923, 1924, 1929 and 1931 : but it was not one that 
most of his colleagues appreciated. He was a member, so 
long as he wanted to be one ; his associates came and went. 

In this same interview he attacks the commonest defence 
of the institution: 

“To my mind, the least important function of the House of Com- 
mons is that to which some people give most weight — namely, 
that of a debating society, in which every point of view can find 

For mere debate, he had never cared. He thought it futile, 
as indeed, it is apt to be, however entertaining, at St 
Stephen’s. For life there, altogether, he did not care. As 
he said, “sixty-three is a little too late to alter one’s habits,” 
most of all when the new habits offered are of a kind that do 
not appeal. Some day, let 11s hope, he will tell us what he 
really thinks of the stifled and stifling existence of an M.P., 
compelled, if a Labour M.P., to be in attendance right 
round the clock, yet prevented, by the physical conditions of 
his environment, from doing anything for most of the hours 
of his incarceration. It is a life that has to be endured, to be 
appreciated; its enjoyment calls for traits he did not possess. 
Whether, with his passion for orderly concentrated work, his 


very feebly developed enjoyment of gossip, and his lack of 
interest in debate for debate’s sake, he would, ever, have 
found it really congenial may well be doubted. 

Those who take hardest to what they feel its elaborately 
organised time-wasting, arc the men who come there with 
the notion that they are going to be able to carry on, in a 
larger sphere, the usefulness and the general methods of 
their experience as members of local governing bodies. 
Such men, used, by reasonable compromise and mutual 
give-and-take, to getting things done find it difficult to 
adjust themselves to a scene drearily governed by the 
formula “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose. ” When 
they go upstairs, to committees, hope, already defeated 
so far as the Chamber itself is concerned, springs up anew, 
only to be, there, even more bitterly disappointed. All is 
ingenuity and obstruction. It bores them. 

It undoubtedly bored him. If endurable so long as he 
could, still, spend his mornings in Grosvcnor Road, on 
his own work, it became unendurable on the days — and 
they were many — on which he had to be at the House at 
eleven for a Committee, and was kept at it until midnight 
or later. His two periods in opposition — 1922-23, and 1924- 
29 — were strenuous years. The Labour Party was fighting 
every inch of the ground ; its discipline was rigorously 
exercised, on the conscientious; members, even the most 
distinguished, were expected to be there. The time available 
for other work was small indeed. And yet since, on both 
occasions, and notably in the longer second period, the 
Opposition was small, what could be accomplished, inside 
the walls of Westminster was not great. The work of con- 
version, of preparing the electorate to take advantage of 
their opportunity for peaceably bringing about a change, 
was done more effectively by the inaction of the Government 
than by anything that could be accomplished by an Oppos- 
ition. Or so it might well seem to the practical man. It is 



not surprising that after four years of his second turn of this, 
he should, in 1928, have felt the strain: felt that he had 
endured the uncongenial and ineffective long enough. He 
determined — and rightly — that neither Westminster nor 
Whitehall was his sphere. 

“The explanation is simply that I shall be seventy when the 
Election occurs. Being in Parliament is not my life; it has only 
been an episode. I only went in under compulsion six years ago. 

I am now feeling the strain of it. The hours are very long. 
You begin often at eleven o’clock on Committee work, and 
have to stay until eleven or eleven-thirty. It is too much for me, 
and in two years* time, it will be very much too much for me. 

I am giving notice to my constituents in good time. 

Parliament is much more trying than it was years ago. The 
work was then left to perhaps a score of leaders on either side. 
Now, everybody takes a hand. I have other things to do. My wife 
and I have other books to write. You cannot do that, and do the 
House of Commons as well. I am not going to give up my work. 

I think that in the new parliament there will be a very narrow 
majority either way, and that will mean very much more 
incessant attendance. I cannot face that. There are only about 
six members of the House of Commons who are older than I am. 
Parliament has become too heavy a job for people who do not 
enter reasonably young and take it up as the work of their 
life. I went in at the age of sixty-three, and that is a little too 
late to alter one’s habits.” 

No need to quarrel with his own calm verdict. He 
was not an outstanding success, cither as a Minister or as an 
M.P. He never fully “pulled his weight” in the corporate 
life which is the substantive opportunity of Westminster; 
nor, despite a few admirable dissertations on a few issues 
that keenly interested him, did he shine in the Chamber. He 
took up the new life too late. Had he entered the House of 
Commons when he went on to the London County Council, 
young, adaptable, full of vigour and resource, he might have 
proved as effective in national as in local government: as 
effective, above all, at the Cabinet table, and in the adminis- 
trative sphere. As it was, a good, if uninspired, President of 


the Board of Trade, and a much better Colonial Secretary 
than some people thought, in both offices he gave some 
colour to the bon-mot that went the rounds at the time, to 
the effect that he was the one Minister who thought of all 
the objections to any proposed course of action before his 
Permanent Departmental Heads had put them to him. This 
certainly could never have been said of him, when he was 
reorganising the government of London, and “painting the 
sky red with projects. ” As it was, he had sixty-three years 
of exceedingly strenuous life behind him when he began, 
and over seventy when he finished his parliamentary career, 
while the times in which he had to function were abnormal, 
and called for exceptional energies and adaptations. 

1922 was not an easy year for the Party; and the Party 
itself was not too easy. It was drawn from very varying 
elements, and fed by very various strains of feeling. The 
first action that the new M.P. for Seaham had to take, on his 
arrival at Westminster, was to assist in electing a Leader 
for the party, now some one-hundred and forty strong; 
twice as strong, that is to say, as it had been through the 
thankless period of the Lloyd George Coalition Government 
which broke in 1922. The new Left wing, led by the I.L.P. 
men from the Clyde, was pressing to have Mr. J. R. Clynes, 
who had been leader in the last months of the old parlia- 
ment, substituted by Mr. J. Ramsay MacDonald. They 
got their way, at the party meeting, although by a very 
narrow majority. Among those who voted against this 
change, there were some who felt that public manners 
demanded that Mr. Clynes, who had had very much the 
rough of it as leader of a handful, should now have a turn 
of the relatively smooth. Webb, with his naturally good 
manners, strong kindliness, and keen sense of comradeship 
as a vital element in the life of any Socialist association, un- 
doubtedly felt this. He felt, moreover, if he did not express 
the feeling at the time, or indeed, for many years, a radical 


doubt as to MacDonald’s being seriously on anything that 
could be called “the Left.” 

The juxtaposition of these two so different men, that 
occurs, again and again, throughout their careers, might 
have culminated in a moment of genuine drama had 
Webb, in 1931, been willing to contest Seaham against the 
National Government’s Prime Minister; and the result 
might have been very different from what did occur in 
October 1931, had he done so. Hard to imagine his being 
willing; he has never, at any stage, permitted himself to be 
involved in any course of action that his own quick sen- 
sitiveness, or that of anyone else, could stigmatise as “not 
cricket.” Certainly, in 1922, and from 1922 on till the 
“Crisis,” his loyalty to the chosen leader of the Labour 
party was perfect. It continued unwavering through the 
years from 1922 to 1929, and, in 1929, was most strikingly 
demonstrated when, at MacDonald’s personal appeal, he 
consented to carry on the burden of co-operation not only 
as a Minister, but as a peer. 

With MacDonald, in the first year of his life as an M.P., 
his association was constant, if not close. He had himself 
been elected Chairman of the Labour Party’s National 
Executive, with MacDonald as his Vice-Chairman; he 
presided over the Annual Conference which, in the summer 
of 1923, was held in London, in the Queen’s Hall. A 
Conference which had its very difficult moments, he managed 
with success. The vital attributes of a chairman — mastery 
of procedure and of business, and a swift capacity to make 
up his mind — he possesses, fully. His voice, it is true, is 
not of a size, nor of a timbre, to prevail above noise, but, as 
he mildly pointed out, delegates, if quiet themselves, would 
find no difficulty in hearing him. The immense respect in 
which he is held largely prevailed in the main to keep them 
quiet. His Presidential address, noting the steady and 
surprisingly rapid rise of Labour to political power and 


responsibility, contained a phrase of which he was never to 
hear the last, although it only repeated what he had con- 
stantly said before, and few of those w ho talked afterwards 
either in derision or in agreement, about “the inevitability 
of gradualness ” did him the justice of reading it in its 
context. The Address, as a whole, is a remarkable docu- 
ment, worthy of study even at this date — which is more 
than can be said of nine-tenths of the Presidential addresses 
to any Conferences ! Notable for instance, is the passage, 
early on, on the “immoral Treaties of Peace ” and the 
resultant “state of warlike tension from one end of Europe 
to the other” which “lie at the root of all our present 
troubles.” “The historian of the future” he goes on, 

“cannot fail to record that Paris was a factory' of international 
inefficiency on a quite calamitous scale.” 

The Treaties, failed, so the Labour Party holds, because 
they ignored both economics and morality; for, 

“I confess to the simple faith that morality, like economics, is 
actually part of the nature of things, and, in great matters and 
in small, whenever we fail to take into account the nature of 
things, our calculations and arrangements arc inevitably brought 
to naught.” 

The sentences immediately following this go to the root of 
the matter — 

“ Where the world itself went most wrong in 1919, and I think 
that all countries must share the blame, and the great majority 
of their citizens, was in the spirit with which the problem was 
approached. Wc can all sec now that Europe could no more 
be rebuilt upon the passion of hate, the passion of greed, and the 
passion of fear, than upon anger and violence. And neither hate 
nor greed, neither fear nor violence, is brought more into accord 
with the requirements either of economics or of ethics merely 
by being national instead of individual.” 

In Foreign policy, therefore, wc must come out of our 
Nationalist illusions, which are only the common profit 



making illusions writ large. In the field of economics, he 
saw an intellectual challenge presenting itself in a three-fold 

First, the free competition that had given to the consumer at 
least “some guarantee that prices would oscillate round the 
necessary cost of production ” was being superseded; 

Second, the overweening influence in politics and in the press, 
of the very rich; 


Third, the fact of Unemployment, both in its magnitude at the 
time, and in its persistence and universality. 

These are the problems with which Labour grapples in 
Labour and The New Social Order. There follow two passages 
which demand textual quotation : first, that on Gradualism: 

“First let me insist on what our opponents habitually ignore, 
and indeed, what they seem intellectually incapable of under- 
standing, namely the inevitable gradualness of our scheme of 
change. The very fact that Socialists have both principles and a 
programme appears to confuse nearly all their critics. If we state 
our principles, we are told ‘That is not practicable.' When we 
recite our programme the objection is ‘That is not Socialism.’ 
But why, because wc are idealists, should we be supposed to be 
idiots? For the Labour Party, it must be plain, Socialism is 
rooted in political Democracy; which necessarily compels us to 
recognise that every step towards our goal is dependent on 
gaining the assent and support of at least a numerical majority 
of the whole people. Thus even if we aimed at revolutionising 
everything at once, wc should necessarily be compelled to make 
each particular change only at the time, and to the extent, 
and in the manner in which ten or fifteen million electors, in all 
sorts of conditions, of all sorts of temperaments, from Land's 
End to the Orkneys, could be brought to consent to it. How 
anyone can fear that the British electorate, whatever mistakes it 
may make or may condone can ever go too fast or too far is in- 
comprehensible to me. That indeed, is the supremely valuable 
safeguard of any effective democracy. 

But the Labour Party, when in due course it comes to be en- 
trusted with power, will naturally not even want to do every- 
thing at once. Surely, it must be abundantly manifest to any 


instructed person that, whilst it would be easy to draft pro- 
clamations of universal change, or even enact laws in a single 
sitting purporting to give a new Heaven and a new Earth, die 
result, the next morning, would be no change at all, unless indeed, 
the advent of widespread confusion. I remember Mr. Bernard 
Shaw saying, a whole generation ago, ‘Don’t forget that, 
whilst you may nationalise the railways in one afternoon, it will 
take a long time to transform all the third-class carriages and all 
the first-class carriages into second-class carriages.* Once we 
face the necessity of putting our principles first into bills, to be 
fought through Committee clause by clause; and then into the 
appropriate administrative machinery for carrying them into 
execution from one end of the Kingdom to the other — and this 
is what the Labour Party has done with its Socialism — the 
inevitability of gradualness cannot fail to be appreciated. This 
translation of Socialism into practicable projects, to be adopted 
one after another, is just the task in which we have been engaged 
for a whole generation, with the result that, on every side, frag- 
ments of our proposals have already been put successfully into 
operation by^ Town and County Councils, and the national 
Government itself, and have now become accepted as common- 
places by the average man. The whole nation has been imbibing 
Socialism without realising it ! It is now time for the subconscious 
to rise into consciousness.” 

This is characteristic; it is the familiar Webb. Equally 
characteristic however, if less familiar, except to those in 
closer contact with his mind, is that with which he ends. 
After re-asserting that whatever the vices of existing author- 
ity, “the alternative to government is not freedom,” and, 
going on to state that 

“the world needs to-day not less but more of that deliberately 
arranged co-operation among citizens in social tasks, which we 
term government,” 

he touches on what he himself calls “the spirit that giveth 

“Finally, let me remind you that there is a higher need even 
than government, whether it be the government of a city or the 
government of our tempers, or the government of our tongues. 
It is not upon its plans or its programme, — not even upon its 



principles or its ideals — that a political party is ultimately judged. 
It is not upon them or any of them that its measure of success in 
the continued appeal to the judgment of the average citizen 
finally depends. The success of the Labour Party in this country 
depends, more than anything else, upon the spirit in which 
we hold our faith, the spirit in which we present our proposals, 
the spirit in which we meet our opponents in debate, the spirit 
in which we fulfil our own obligations, the spirit in which, 
with inevitable back-slidings, we live our own lives. We shall 
not achieve much, what ever changes we can bring about, 
unless what we do is done in the spirit of fellowship. For 
we must always remember that the founder of British Social- 
ism was not Karl Marx, but Robert Owen, and that Robert 
Owen preached not ‘class war’ but the ancient doctrine of 
human brotherhood — the hope, the faith, the living fact of human 
fellowship — a faith and hope re-affirmed in the words of that 
other great British Socialist, William Morris.” 

What he says here about fellowship was most seriously 
meant. Both he and Mrs. Webb, at this time, and indeed 
throughout his parliamentary period, were giving a great 
deal of their time to sociability, with a view to strengthening 
the internal cohesion of the party, and making it, if possible, 
into something like a real comradeship. There were 
difficult cross-currents to stem, of which those represented 
by Clydeside suspensions in the House, and attacks by the 
so-called Left wing on the leadership, out of it, were merely 
the most spectacular. Permeation, by the right kind of 
ideas, was as necessary as ever, if its field was somew'hat 
changed. On this, Grosvcnor Road was busy. If dinners 
were seldom possible, owing to parliamentary engagements, 
lunches could be, and were, organised. Much of this effort 
was thwarted by the fact that the party as a whole, and its 
leader in particular, showed a great aversion to being 

Bernard Shaw, in one of his letters to Ellen Terry, suggests 
that if she would come down and join the group in Surrey 
with which he was then holidaying, she could be “Rich, 
with Mrs. Webb to arrange you!” The “arrangement,” 


however much of good feeling there was behind it, tended 
to be a trifle too obvious. Mr. MacDonald certainly 
proved entirely recalcitrant to any such “arrangement.” 

She, nothing daunted, attempted another enterprise, 
almost as precarious. Agreeing with her husband’s 
diagnosis as to the swift approach of the party to respons- 
ibility and even to power, she saw all sorts of social duties 
as suddenly falling on the wives of members, and of ministers, 
for which most of them were not, in the nature of things, 
very well prepared. In order to prepare them, she founded 
the famous Half Circle Club, which, if not expressly, was 
nevertheless, in intention, a club of manners. Lady War- 
wick’s generous action, in placing her country house, Easton 
Lodge, at the disposal of the party for social purposes, as 
well as for conferences, summer schools, and so on, gave a 
most agreeable background for the working out of this 
scheme. Not all the ladies of the party, it must be admitted 
welcomed the well-intentioned effort at improvement of 
their manners, or even the brightening of their minds. At 
the period when the Half Circle Club was at its most 
successful, opposition raised its head. The party was 
gathering in people of every sort, at this stage, and from 
every class. Its ladies were not all the wives of Trade 
Unionists; some of them thought they knew at least as 
much about manners and morals as Mrs. Webb. If one 
social government was being trained at Easton, not so many 
miles away, in Hertfordshire, another was preparing, spon- 
sored by a “cave” of stalwarts, who called themselves the 
“anti-Beatrice Society.” So hard is the way of fellowship! 

As it proved, the testing time was very' near at hand. 
The estimate of its approach made in his Presidential 
Address in June was laughed at by the London newspapers. 
Five months later, Mr. Baldwin’s sudden plunge into 
Protectionism precipitated a General Election, as the result 
of which the Conservatives came back in a minority, while 



Labour, with its strength increased from one hundred and 
forty to over one hundred and ninety, was the strongest 
Opposition party. The opportunity of responsibility had 
come, if in a most disagreeably questionable form. As to 
whether or not it ought to be taken, he, one may be sure, 
had no more doubts than had Mr. MacDonald. Oppor- 
tunities must be used, in the form in which they are offered. 

“ Innovators and reformers, having great ideals and a high 
standard, sometimes make the mistake of thinking that, even 
from the outset, nothing less than the best is admissible.” 

His way always was to do the useful work that could, in 
fact, in the circumstances, be done. 

Mr. MacDonald formed the first Labour Government: 
in his Cabinet he made Sidney Webb President of the Board 
of Trade, with A. V. Alexander, a very able representative 
of the Co-operative Movement, as Parliamentary Secretary. 
In this Department, the new President was completely at 
home, and as departmental chief was an undoubted success. 
In the House, he had to deal with a large number of com- 
plicated but ungrateful matters, many left over by previous 
Governments. He was actively concerned with the 1924 
London Traffic Bill, and busy on the Cabinet Committee on 
Unemployment. In view of the actual position in the House, 
major action in regard to trade and industry was, of course, 
impossible. There was a combined Conservative-Liberal 
majority against any interference with “free competition.” 
A mandate for that, however, might, he thought, be secured, 
if the facts were fully revealed ; to that end, one of his first 
decisions was to set up a Committee to enquire and report 
on those facts. He therefore made his old colleague of the 
Sankey Commission days, Sir Arthur Balfour (of Sheffield), 
chairman of a body entrusted with the task of enquiring 
into and reporting upon the position and prospects of 
British Trade and Industry. Unfortunately for the success 
and efficiency of the Committee’s work, the Trade Union 


Congress General Council in 1924 took the view that any 
Committees or Commissions set up by a Labour Government 
ought to be predominantly Labour in personnel: and 
further, that this Labour personnel should be nominated 
by it. Since this ordinance was not honoured in the com- 
position of the Balfour Committee, the General Council 
refused to give evidence, and most, though not all, of the 
Unions, followed its lead — a fact that made the evidence 
taken inevitably somewhat one-sided. Further, its Reports 
were not received until the beginning of 1929, by which 
time the economic problem of Great Britain was, plainly, 
entering a far more serious phase than the Committee had 

With the complicated issues that led to the fall of the 
first Labour Government in the autumn of 1924, after but 
nine months of office, the President of the Board of Trade 
had nothing to do. After the 1924 “Red Letter” Election, 
the Party came back to Westminster in reduced strength; 
but Seaham was faithful. So far as the House of Commons 
goes, between 1924 and 1929, his main contribution to the 
work of the Opposition was in his speeches on the De-Rating 
Bill of Mr. Neville Chamberlain. Here, he was absolutely 
on his own ground, and when he made his destructive 
attacks on the abolition of block-grants and the de-rating 
proposals generally, the House listened, and knew it listened, 
to the voice of a master. Such occasions however were rare; 
his own calm verdict was that he had entered parliament 
too late: a verdict so definite in his own mind that, during 
this period, he began to lay plans for retiring not only from 
the House of Commons, but from active politics altogether. 
In 1925, for instance, he went off the National Executive 
of the Labour Party and took no direct part, therefore, in 
the dark and difficult events of 1926, although as a miners* 
M.P. he was indirectly involved in the Miners* Lock-out, 
and the General Strike, and he and Mrs. Webb spent a 


great deal of time in Durham County . About this time, 
too, plans for a change of residence took active shape. 

In 1926, Mrs. Webb published that remarkable auto- 
biographic volume, My Apprenticeship , which suddenly 
revolutionised the ideas of the younger generation about her, 
about him, and about what they were “really like”; and 
made vivid to those who had not thought about it before, 
how great a sacrifice both of them were making in the 
separation involved in his membership of the House. On 
her, that sacrifice was telling. She was beginning to weary 
of London, in the changed and discoloured form in which 
London now presented itself to her; and to hanker after 
the country, in which so much of her youth had been spent. 
Several years earlier, they had begun the search for a 
country home — one that should be really in the country, 
and, at the same time, not so far from London as to cut 
them off from their friends and their interests there. They 
knew what they wanted. They described what they 
required, and invited offers. Offers — mostly of course, 
quite unsuitable — poured in. Whenever they sounded at all 
possible, they were patiently investigated by her. At last, 
the right thing — or what could be made into the right thing 
— turned up: a cottage, in the midst of farm land, on the 
borders of Hampshire and Surrey. Liphook is the station, 
so they get good trains, but the tiny village of Passfield, 
which gave them the name, Passfield Corner, for their house, 
is off any beaten track, and on the edge of a vast stretch of 
common and woodland. It is Crown land, and therefore 
inalienably safe ; the War Office uses part of the great extent 
of open territory for tank and shooting practice, while the 
Webbs use it for walks. 

They modernised and extended, building on studies, 
guest-rooms and sun-terraces, thither about 1928, they 
finally transferred themselves, their books and their 
possessions generally. They acquired a dog — a long, low 


yellowish-whitish terrier, which figures in William Nichol- 
son’s portrait of them: a portrait that shows them by the 
fireplace in the living-room at Passfield Corner, a very 
pleasant, book-lined room, whose one fault is that its ceiling 
is on the low side* 41 Grosvenor Road, home and workshop 
for so long, was, at first with the reservation of a couple of 
rooms, and then altogether, handed over to their friend 
and his intimate associate in many years of L.C.C. fighting, 
Susan Lawrence. Appropriately enough, 41 Grosvenor 
Road has now ceased to exist. The house is still there; but, 
in 1932, perhaps to avoid confusion with the other Gros- 
venors, round about Victoria Station, the road was re- 
christened Millbank. 

In 1928 he told his constituents that he was going to leave 
them; for the approaching election — which he smelt in the 
air — they must choose another candidate. The spring of 
1929 found him and his wife, their minds set to a prospect 
of some years of quiet work, of their own kind, in the 
country', with lots of people to come down and talk with 
them, and friends, too, not so far off, in the country itself, 
setting off on one more of their long journeys. This one 
took them, among other places, to the Near East, to the 
bland of Prinkipo. There they paid a visit to an angry 
exile — Leon Trotsky, banished from Russia after his final 
defeat in the struggle for power with Stalin. They found 
him interesting, if impossible. Their views on the Russian 
experiment were, at this stage, not too friendly. They had 
kept closely in touch with Russian happenings, ever since 
1917; they saw all the Russians, and all the visitors to 
Russia, there were to see; they discussed Communism and 
Sovietism, very thoroughly; they read a great deal about 
the U.S.S.R. ; they grasped, long before most people, the 
fact that what kept it going was, mainly, its religious aspect: 
the existence of the Communbt Party as a kind of Jesuit 
Order. But, at thb stage, they did not much like it; still 



less its reactions on opinion at home. Mrs. Webb made a 
practice of writing a monthly letter to his constituents in 
Seaham. In one of them in July 1927 she had stated, quite 
bluntly, that 

“The Russian Revolution, and especially, the propaganda of 
it in Great Britain, has been the greatest misfortune in the 
history of the British Labour Movement. Just as the French 
Revolution in 1789-93 kept back the advent of political demo- 
cracy in England for a hundred years, so the Russian Revolution 
of 1917 may, if we are not careful, prove to keep back the advent 
of economic democracy in England for half a century.” 

So, if keenly interested in Russia, their interest was tinged 
with distaste. This distaste was, in either case, connected 
with the aversion they had both always felt from the Marxian 
dialectic and the entire doctrinaire approach. On top of 
this came the disgust of their orderly minds for the mess and 
horror of revolution. From the British angle, moveover, 
the whole thing was a bit of a nuisance. 

Trotsky, of course, at once raised the question of his own 
admission to England. Much as he despised everyone in 
the Socialist movement there, he still thought it their duty 
to get him in. What he himself says is: 

“Mr. and Mrs. Webb most courteously paid me a visit early 
in May 1929, when I was already on Prinkipo. We talked about 
the possible advent of a Labour Party to power. I remarked 
in passing that immediately after the formation of Mr. Mac- 
Donald’s Government, I intended to demand a visa. Mr. Webb 
expressed the view that the Government might not find itself 
strong enough, and because of their dependence on Liberals, not 
free enough, either. I replied that a Party not strong enough to 
be able to answer for its actions had no right to power. Our 
irreconcilable differences needed no new test.” 1 

They came home, as they thought, to the peace and quiet, 
the ordered work on their own lines, of Passfield Corner; 
to resume, after seven years’ interruption, the congenial 

1 My Lift, p. 492. 


common task. Vain dream. What met them was a new 
and insistent appeal for co-operation, even for sacrifice. 

The 1929 Election made Labour, with two hundred and 
fifty M.P.’s, the strongest single party, although the shrunken 
Liberal remnant still held the balance in the House of 
Commons, and, in the Lords, the Conservative preponder- 
ance was, of course, overwhelming. Mr. MacDonald, in 
forming his second Government, was faced afresh with the 
difficulty arising out of the constitutional practice according 
to which a certain number of Secretaries of State must be 
in the Upper House. He was unwilling to repeat the 1924 
experiment of relying, in part, on outsiders. To Sidney 
Webb he put up a very strong appeal, on both personal and 
public grounds. He knew that he had in his mind 
withdrawn from politics, and had taken definite and decisive 
steps to that end; was not he himself now M.P. for Seaham, 
in his place? Webb, so he has said, is the only associate 
who has never at any stage asked him for a job of any kind. 
There was no question now, of his wanting one; the question 
was — Could he overcome his strong disinclination for any 
further political effort? It was put to him, and with force, 
that his help was required, both in the Cabinet and as a 
Minister. Would he, in fac t, take on the onerous task of 
becoming Secretary of State for the Colonics, and, in 
addition, make the sacrifice of views he was known to hold 
about peerages, and go up to the Lords? There, the hours 
would be far less strenuous; the work itself would be mainly 

Much against his inclinations, and simply and solely 
out of his strong sense of public duty, he finally agreed. 
He made perhaps the biggest sacrifice of his career. He 
became Baron Pass field. For the first time in their long 
association, his wife refused fully to share the burden with 
him. She did, nobly, do her part in the, to her, supremely 
distasteful social sphere. The social burden falling on the 



Colonial Secretary is, as a matter of fact, exceptionally 
onerous; she took it on, without repining, and was often 
exceedingly amusing about it. But she refused, on her part, 
to alter the name by which she had been known for nearly 
forty years. She had changed her name once, in 1892: she 
was not going to do it again, in 1929. She did not see why 
the practice long used in Scotland, in the case of the Law 
Lords, should not be adopted. On this, she was immoveable. 
She made the Prime Minister, and others, very wrath; but 
nothing shook her. Lady Passfield was a person whose 
existence she refused to countenance. Solemn officials were 
horrified at the notion of sending out invitations under the 
title “To meet the Secretary of State for the Colonies and 
Mrs. Webb”; ladies in the social hierarchy took her person- 
ally to task. In vain. She had been born into the social 
hierarchy, and was not to be browbeaten. Her husband 
had gone into an imprisonment whose duration was limited. 
He would escape: he has escaped. There was no reason 
in sense or logic why she should follow him. She remained, 
obstinately, Mrs. Webb. She did her social chores with a 
good grace; more than that, she kept up the practice, 
initiated in 1924, of having the members of the Parlia- 
mentary Labour Party to lunch, in batches, in order that 
she and Sidney might get to know them. There was no 
part of the duty attaching to the wife of the Colonial 
Secretary that she neglected; but she did not see becoming 
a Baroness as part of that duty. Had her views and her 
husband’s prevailed in 1924, when the crucial decisions 
about etiquette, manners, Court dress and the relations of a 
Labour Party to the Court generally had to be taken, the 
advent of the first Labour Government would have been 
employed to make a definite but perfectly courteous break 
with tradition. Now, in a small matter that concerned only 
herself, she was adamant. “I am an old woman,” she 
would say, “and I am not going to change.” 


That her view about the peerage, for those who happened 
to like to be in it, was if contemptuous not unduly harsh is 
made plain in an article contributed anonymously, about 
this time, to the Political Quarterly: an article which re- 
produced the substance of her talk at one of the lunches she 
gave to Labour members. It is called The Disappearance of 
the Governing Class , and is designed to test the assumption, so 
easily being made about that time, that 

“ a momentous transfer of political power, from the relatively small 
governing classes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to 
a body of men and women representing between them, in birth, 
training and occupation, all the classes of the community” 

was in fact taking place. She finds in Mr. MacDonald’s 
1929 Cabinet, six genuine manual workers; five from the 
“Intellectual Proletariat,” including Lord Passfield: six 
from the nineteenth century governing class. Although the 
Cabinet contained no representatives of the old aristocracy 
of Great Britain, when the composition of the “second 
eleven” — Ministers outside the Cabinet and Under Secre- 
taries — is analysed, it shows nine Trade Unionists, six of the 
Intellectual Proletariat, seven higher bourgeoisie , and four of 
the old aristocracy (Earls Russell and De la Warr, Sir 
Oswald Mosley and Mr. Arthur (now Lord) Ponsonby). 
Looking into the future, she holds that 

“the firm anchorage of the Labour Party in the working class 
organisations may be deemed a guarantee that Labour Adminis- 
trations will continue to represent adequately the four-fifths of 
the population.” 

At the same time, she closes on a note of caution: 

“The British governing class of the past hundred years has 
shown a marvellous capacity for assimilating all those persons, 
irrespective of their antecedents, who posses s power.” 

Her final word is an admonition to leaders that — 

“If you really desire successive Labour Administrations, con- 
tinuously devoted to the welfare of the common people, you will 



need to maintain, by precept and by example, the modest per- 
sonal expenditure and unpretentious ways of social intercourse 
implied by the ideal of equality between man and man — an 
ideal which is the very soul of the Labour Movement. ,, 

So far as “ modest personal expenditure and unpre- 
tentious ways of social intercourse” went, she and Lord 
Passfield certainly set an example: an example more 
important than her refusal to become a peeress. 

He, as Secretary of State, did not find himself at all in 
the quiet administrative job which the Prime Minister had 
led him to expect there. On the contrary: he was for a 
period, in the centre of a veritable whirlwind. His term of 
office as Secretary of State for the Colonies covered a period 
during which problems emerged which roused strong 
feeling on the part of very vocal groups; not the sort of 
problems, either, with which he was always very familiar, 
or to which he was naturally attracted. 

True, in going to the Colonial Office, he was, in a sense, 
re-treading the footprints of his youth. It was there, as a 
First Division clerk, that he had worked, between the ages 
of twenty and thirty. There he had, for a period, lived, as 
Resident clerk. In a desk, there, the Minutes of the Fabian 
Society had at one stage been housed. In the wellnigh 
forty intervening years, however, the scope and nature of 
the issues with which a British Colonial Secretary has to 
deal had become enormously extended and complicated. 
Simple Crown Colony Government, where Downing Street 
had the first and last word, had, in important parts of the 
Colonial Empire, been left behind, and, in Malta, Ceylon, 
the West Indies, Kenya, and elsewhere, the local Legislatures 
had now a large, if varying, share in the management of 
their own affairs. Further, the War had left Great Britain 
as Mandatory Power for difficult regions of the earth; 
regions that at least in one case, that of Palestine, presented 
wellnigh insoluble antagonisms. The Colonial Secretary 


is the agent of British responsibility for some sixty millions 
of people, infinitely various in race, colour, religion, and 
relative stages in civilisation, scattered over the whole earth. 
They appear before him mainly in the form of papers; but 
these papers require to be translated into terms of human 
beings, by a process that demands imagination, sympathy, 
and an understanding of conditions not easy to realise in 
the atmosphere of Whitehall. 

Neither temperament nor training in his case, were of a 
kind to make this “translation” process easy, and he could 
not be expected, at seventy, to change. He had an actual 
acquaintance with our “Colonial Empire” as extensive as 
most Colonial Secretaries have had, but he has not a very 
large measure of natural sympathy with what he calls, 
characteristically, the “non-adult” mind. His own is, 
pre-eminently, an adult mind. If people, at times, have 
thought him brusque, it is because he credits them with an 
understanding as rapid and a knowledge as full, as his own, 
and so does not bother to explain. Anyone who asks him 
to explain, will find him do so, with infinite patience. But 
he has to be asked to do it. His mind, again, is not only 
adult: it is institutional, and, between the institutional 
mind and the African native or the fanatical Jew or Arab, 
there is little enough to come and go upon. So, while 
extraordinarily effective, from one point of view, in handling 
papers or in dealing with business matters — conscientious, 
immensely diligent, swift to grasp essential points, impatient 
with irrelevancies, easily master of details, and quickly 
capable of setting them in proper perspective ; he was less 
effective in seizing the intangible and unfamiliar human 
element underlying them. He has never been what is called 
“good at people.” He examined every Colonial problem 
by standards of high intelligence and fair dealing, and dealt 
with it shrewdly, and, in most cases, very successfully; but, 
where human emotions and reactions were involved, he 



was without inward guidance. His departmental heads — 
for whom he had the respect he always shows to a workman 
or professional man trained for a job — were unfortunately 
apt to underline rather than compensate this deficiency: 
and he and they were usually in substantial agreement. 

In general, however, his period of office was marked by 
many useful and progressive Colonial administrative achieve- 
ments. Thus, he was responsible for the long and tedious 
but successful negotiations in connection with the Iraq 
treaty and the preparation for Iraq’s emergence from its 
Mandatory position. Although he, characteristically and 
rightly, gave the lion’s share of the credit to Sir Francis 
Humphries, our High Commissioner in Iraq, and to the very 
able Colonial Office Official who chiefly managed the 
business at this end, he himself constantly supervised the 
proceedings and is entitled to a considerable measure of 
credit for the fact that Iraq is now a member of the League 
of Nations, and on the best of terms with Great Britain. 
Again, the White Paper on Native Policy in East Africa (cmd. 
3573) — his own handiwork, as any student of its phrasing 
will discern — was an important and memorable document. 
In it he re-stated the British position on trusteeship, pre- 
viously set out by the Duke of Devonshire in 1923 and by 
Mr. Amery in 1927. His statement aroused criticism by the 
Kenya settlers and others, who did not like the phrase 
“paramountcy of native interests.” 

General Hertzog, Prime Minister of South Africa, whose 
own native policy has been a deep disappointment to 
enlightened world opinion, rushed into the fray and made 
the surprising suggestion that South Africa should have 
been consulted before the White Paper was issued. This, 
despite the fact that no British Government had been 
consulted by the Union Government when important 
departures from traditional British policy in former British 
territories were taking place, and that Britain was respon- 


siblc for the welfare of 40,000,000 Africans as against the 
Union’s 6,500,000. Anyhow, the White Paper with its 
clear assertion of the rights of the African peoples, was 
issued to every East African official as his “book of words”; 
and was endorsed in the Report of the Joint Committee on 
Closer Union in East Africa, which concluded its work as 
the Labour Government fell. This Committee, composed 
of representative members of the Lords and Commons and 
including the principal authorities on Colonial Affairs in 
all Parties in both Houses of Parliament, in a unanimous 
Report, included Lord Passfield’s Paper with the previous 
two as “the broad basis upon which the co-ordination of 
native policy should proceed,” and said that “steps should 
be taken to bring the administration into harmony with 
these principles.” Further, that 

“the principle underlying the Mandates is no less unassailable 
in Kenya and Uganda than in Tanganyika”: 


“to . . . peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under 
the strenuous conditions of the modem world, there should be 
applied the principle that the well being and development of 
such peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation.” 

These authoritative declarations cannot now* be lightly set 
aside by any future Government of any Party. His clear 
affirmation of a just and generous policy on the part of 
Britain towards our African fellow-subjects, came at a time 
when strong contrary influences were at work; on this 
ground alone, his tenure of office has historical importance. 

He set on foot investigations into the methods of 
dealing with Juvenile delinquency in the Colonies, into 
Labour Conditions and Wages, Factory Acts, Workmen’s 
Compensation, recruitment of native labour, the provision 
of medical sendees, and education. Dr. Drummond Shiels, 
his Parliamentary Undersecretary, presided over these 
investigating Committees, at which many disquieting facts 

were disclosed. Steps were taken to deal with the most 
urgent matters, and a great deal more was in train for action 
when the Labour Government left office. Among other 
administrative actions, the effective part of an Ordinance 
to bring about the abolition of Mui Tsai in Hong-Kong, 
which had been kept suspended by previous Governments, 
was put into operation in spite of loud local governmental 
protests. Further, the new Constitution for Ceylon, based 
on the recommendations of the Donoughmore Commission 
(of which Dr. Drummond Shiels was a member) was drawn 
up and established. 

To a country with most of India’s problems on a 
smaller scale, it gives adult suffrage for the first time in any 
Eastern country. It abolishes communal representation 
entirely, and places the responsibility for the welfare of 
minorities on the good sense and tolerance of the general 
community, with, in the background, the right of inter- 
vention on their behalf by the Governor. It has executive 
Committees of members of the Legislature attached to the 
Departments of Government, and the State Council has 
both legislative and administrative functions. The new 
Constitution was established at a time of economic depres- 
sion, which did not give it a good start, and there has been 
some friction over the use of the Governor’s powers to 
protect the interests of British Civil Servants. It is certain, 
however, that, whatever changes there may be, the funda- 
mental features of the Constitution will not be altered. 
They mark a notable advance in the application of de- 
mocracy in the East, and were not without effect on the 
recommendations of Lord Lothian’s Advisory Committee 
on the proposed franchise for India. 

In these various directions, substantial good was accom- 
plished, under his regime : not showy, but solid. The gen- 
eral public however, and even many members of his own 
party, were hardly aware of all this. The picture of Colonial 


Office activity was blocked by the Palestine “row” : the 
row that is to say arising out of the White Paper of 1930 
(cmd. 3962). For the fact that there was a row, neither Lord 
Passfield, nor this particular White Paper, were really respon- 
sible. Any W T hite Paper, any statement of British policy in 
Palestine, was bound to produce something of the kind, 
since it must re-state a position in which the British Govern- 
ment is attempting to satisfy conflicting claims that cannot, 
in the nature of the case, be satisfied. This was a fact that 
might have been more fully realised by the Prime Minister 
when, in 1930, he pressed the Colonial Secretary to issue a 
statement of British policy. 

The Palestine Mandate, based as it is on the famous 
Balfour Declaration of 1917, is a compromise document; 
both are typical products of the Lloyd George regime. They 
try to combine the substance of incompatible promises made 
to the Jews and to the Arabs, during the War. The Jews 
expected Palestine as a National Home. What the Declara- 
tion and the Mandate gave them was a National Home in 
Palestine. The Arabs wanted full autonomy, or, at least, a 
Mandatory relation resembling that of Iraq, leading on to 
independence. W r hat they got in the Mandate was a series 
of qualifications to each concession therein made to Jewish 
claims; a recurrent proviso to the affect that the rights and 
privileges of the Arabs were to be respected. Here was a 
dilemma incapable of solution by administrative action. 
The Jews, fortified by funds contributed largely from the 
United States, brought into Palestine numbers of their 
hapless unemployed nationals from Eastern European coun- 
tries, as well as Zionist idealists, from all parts, eager to take 
part in the rebuilding of the ancient heritage of their faith. 
To settle these immigrants, the Jewish authorities bought 
up large tracts of land. The Arabs thereupon protested that 
opportunities for their natural expansion and development 
were being filched from them, and that the land which is 



their natural and historic home was being alienated. Fric- 
tion between the two races culminated, shortly after the 
Labour Government took office, in the tragic riots and 
massacres of August 1929. A commission of three Members 
of the House of Commons was at once sent out to enquire 
and report; when they did report, they laid particular stress 
on the dangers presented by the development of a class of 
landless Arabs; and advised an expert enquiry into land 
settlement. Sir John Hope-Simpson, an admitted expert, 
was at once sent out, for that purpose. Neither the Shaw 
Report nor the Hope-Simpson Report pleased the Jews; 
they brought immense pressure to bear, from all kinds of 
directions, to secure that, in any new statement of policy, an 
attitude more favourable to themselves should be declared. 
Powerfully represented as they are in governing circles at 
home and abroad, they had, and used, all kinds of pressures, 
and had, and used, all kinds of access, not so much to the 
Colonial Secretary, as to other members of the Government. 
There was a great deal more going on, outside the Colonial 
Office, than inside it, from this point of view: above all, 
after the appearance of the famous White Paper. Although 
Lord Passfield had long been giving earnest thought to the 
subject, it was not to him that the eminent visitors came, 
with their arguments and their complaints, their pressure 
and even their threats. 

The White Paper, as issued in the early autumn of 1930, 
was, of course, a Cabinet document. Discussions as to 
whether, and, if so, at what stage, it was approved by the 
Cabinet are beside the point. In spite of the breaches 
recently made in the doctrine of collective responsibility, it 
remains the case that the Cabinet as a whole is responsible 
for every State Paper. As for any breach in the practice 
which imposes secrecy as regards what happens — or does 
not happen — at Cabinet meetings, as part of the oath taken 
by every Privy Councillor, neither Lord Passfield nor Sidney 


Webb, had, or is capable of having, any part or lot in it. 
Thus, to what was intended to be a tactful query on the 
Palestine matter, his reply was “ I do not feel free to tell you 
about any particular Cabinet matter.” No light has there- 
fore been thrown by him on any of the circumstances of 
the row that broke out, with resounding echoes, on the issue 
of this particular Paper. For its drafting, he was, of course, 
as Minister, responsible. 

He made, as the core of his Paper, a Development scheme, 
based on the Report of Sir John Hope-Simpson; and dealt, 
first, with the position of the landless Arabs, and then with 
proposals for bringing more land into cultivatablc condition 
by irrigation, etc., for the use of both Jew's and Arabs, to 
permit of larger Jewish immigration, without injustice to 
the Arabs. A Loan Fund of £2,500,000, to be provided by 
the British Government, was an integral part of this scheme: 
indeed, its pivot. The way was prepared for the announce- 
ment of the Development scheme by a survey of the diffi- 
culties of the situation, and notably of the difficulty in the 
way of sanctioning additional Jewish immigration presented 
by the unemployment and land scarcity from which the 
Arabs suffered. At the last moment, the Treasury is said 
to have asked that the intimation of the financial support to 
be given by way of loan should be left out, as they did not 
wish to be finally committed to it. T his erasure, however, 
left the Paper as a statement of facts, in themselves incon- 
trovertible, which read disagreeably when, instead of being 
linked up with a largely conceived development plan, 
providing, on bold and statesmanlike lines, more land for 
both Jews and Arabs, it faded out into vague generalities. 
Instead of being a plan, the thing became a lecture. As 
such, it was hailed with a torrent of bitter abuse. Before 
many days had passed, agitation had developed into one of 
those recurrent “crises” that made up the hectic life of the 
second Labour Government. An unfortunate interview, 



given by Lord Passfield to a representative of the American 
Jewish Press, added fuel to the flame. The Cabinet was 
alarmed; there was an awkward bye-election pending in 
Whitechapel. Palestine was, for the time being, taken out 
of the hands of the Colonial Secretary. In the House of 
Commons, there was an acrimonious debate. The Under 
Secretary, who only just returned from an official visit to 
Palestine, was put up to defend the White Paper in the 
House, and succeeded in doing so, with very considerable 
success, by filling in the gaps in it of the Development 
scheme. He was further able, some months later, to defend 
it with credit before the Permanent Mandates Commission 
in Geneva. The harm was done, however, and could not 
be undone. 

In this, the part that most men would have minded most 
acutely, but Lord Passfield himself showed least sign of 
minding, was the blow to his own presdge and consideration. 
He had been superseded, and everybody knew it. After 
the Debate, a Cabinet sub-committee was set up to explain 
the White Paper. It included co-opted members from out- 
side the Cabinet, and was presided over not by the Colonial 
Secretary, who was but an ordinary member of it, but by 
the Foreign Secretary. In the circumstances a man who 
thought first of himself, and of his own dignity, might well 
have resigned; so might a man who had a keen sense of 
the dignity of his office. The dignity of his office he felt 
perhaps rather too little; personal dignity he has never 
assumed. His native modesty, that genuine personal 
humility which is so admirable a part of his character 
as homo sapiens , militated against effective self-assertion, 
either in this matter or as a general member of the Cabinet. 
Nor could he extemporise it, in the form of a high sense of 
the status of his office as Colonial Secretary. He did not 
resign, in the upshot; nor has he ever said anything upon the 
matter. One of those who worked with him, in another 


connexion, once observed, with an apologetic but affec- 
tionate smile, 4 'The old man is almost too much of a 

With more than sufficient troubles in his own office — 
troubles, however, which he never allowed to perturb his 
serene equanimity or to prevent his spending the week- 
ends at Passfield Corner — he had little time to devote to 
the more general tribulations and perplexities of the party 
and of the Government of which he was a member. He was 
outside the House of Commons, focus of those perplexities 
and tribulations; and, especially in the last two years of 
the Cabinet’s life, out of contact with the Prime Minister. 
Yet so acute and experienced an observer was aware, both 
of the tides of feeling that were moving the mind of the 
party, and of what was going on, outside of it. Certain 
features of the events of August 1 93 1 surprised him and his 
wife less than they did many others. 

Mrs. Webb’s article, already referred to, suggested part 
of the answer to some of the questions that the simpler 
souls in the Labour party were finding insoluble and acutely 
painful. Two months after the National Government had 
swept the country' at a General Election, he wrote a paper 
in whose opening paragraph he takes the bull by the horns: 

“Why did Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, after thirty years’ up- 
building of the British Labour Party, decide to do his best to 
smash it, going over with a couple of his principal colleagues and 
a mere handful of his Party to a Coalition of Conservative and 

He not only asks the question. He gives the answer. His 
diagnosis of the situation as it was during the opening 
months of 1931 is illuminating. After setting out the par- 
liamentary awkwardness of a minority position, with 

“The Government dependent every day on the support of one 
or other of the inveterately hostile Parties for obtaining the 
Closure (granted only to a majority vote) without which not 



even the routine business of Parliament can be got through, let 
alone any Government measures embodying Party policy,” 

he proceeds to sketch in the personality aspect: — 

“The Labour Party itself grew more and more restive at its own 
parliamentary impotence, section after section breaking out in 
angry rebellion, with practically everybody discontented at the 
meagre achievements of an overworked Cabinet whose diffi- 
culties were very inadequately realised. The Prime Minister was 
not in the mood to find time or energy for that friendly social 
intercourse with the members of his own Party, or even with his 
Ministerial colleagues, which goes so far to avert friction and 
produce the * team spirit.’ More and more he tended to spend his 
scanty leisure in less disagreeable society. Thus the session of 
1931 opened with the Parliamentary Labour Party seriously 
discontented with itself, the several Ministers out of touch with 
one another, struggling separately with their departmental 
difficulties, the Cabinet unable to find solutions for problems in 
the circumstances actually insoluble, and the back benchers at 
loggerheads with themselves and with the front bench. The 
Prime Minister — very much aware of the shortcomings of each 
one of his colleagues, and of the Party to which he belonged, 
as well as (may it be said?) perhaps incessantly rather too con- 
scious of his own superiority — was not in a condition to with- 
stand the temptation of flattering suggestions that began to be 
made from more than one quarter. Why not cut the Gordian 
Knot by getting rid of the perpetual nuisance of Parliamentary 
Opposition; especially if such a surgical operation involved also 
the elimination, or at least, the reduction to impotence, of those 
troublesome sections of the Labour Party whom the Prime 
Minister had come to loathe with a bitterness that could not 
be concealed?” 1 

From the Conservative point of view, a National Govern- 
ment — first suggested, overtly, by Mr. J. L. Garvin — was 
attractive, as a means of getting a Tariff; to the Prime 
Minister, it began to appeal as a means at once of dis- 
entangling himself from the disappointments surrounding 
the second Labour Government, and of effecting reductions 
in expenditure on account of Unemployment. 

1 Political Quarterly y January 193a. Alio Current History (New York). 


In July, the German moratorium certainly produced a 
highly difficult and dangerous situation; but the crisis in 
Britain was created by the issue, on the last day of that 
month, half an hour after members of the House of Commons 
dispersed for the summer recess, of the famous Report of the 
May Committee. This document drew a picture intended 
to be terrifying of the budgetary position. It proved terri- 
fying; not at home only, but abroad it created something 
like a panic ; there was a serious drain on gold from London. 
The crisis arose. Its focus was made, by the May Report, 
the expenditure arising out of the Unemployment Insurance 
system — a matter on which (although most people chose to 
forget this at the time) the May Commissioners were not 
experts, and into which an expert body, in the shape of a 
Royal Commission, was enquiring at the time. In the May 
Report, the cost of State aid to Unemployment Insurance 
was presented as the leak that was sinking the ship of State. 

The situation which, when it met in August, the Cabinet 
had to face was that the Bank of England required loans 
from abroad to stabilise its own Gold Reserve, and to that 
end, the Budget had got to be so balanced as to satisfy 
foreign lenders. Cuts in Unemployment Insurance, so the 
Cabinet was told by the Prime Minister, were “conditions 
of the borrowing.” 

“At any rate, the Labour Cabinet, which had already unani- 
mously determined to balance the Budget by immediately im- 
posing the necessary additional taxation and by making any 
prudent economies, refused to accept any such ‘ condition of 
the borrowing’ as Mr. MacDonald has described, and late on 
Sunday evening, 23rd August, in order not to render urgent 
public business impossible, empowered the Prime Minister to 
tender to the King his own resignation, which automatically 
includes the termination of office of the whole Ministry. It was 
taken for granted that the King would immediately send for Mr. 
Baldwin, the leader of the Conservative Party, and entrust him 
with the formation of a new Government. It is significant that 
Mr. Neville Chamberlain, who as Mr. Baldwin’s principal 



colleague had been with him almost hourly in consultation with 
the Prime Minister, stated publicly in a speech a few days later 
that he had himself gone to bed that Sunday night with exactly 
that assumption. 

The Prime Minister had in mind a different development of 
the drama that he himself had staged. What happened at Buck- 
ingham Palace on Monday morning, 24th August, can be known 
only to the actual participators. What is said is that the King — 
with whom the Prime Minister had been in constant com- 
munication but who never went outside his constitutional posi- 
tion, made a strong appeal to him to stand by the nation in this 
financial crisis, and to seek the support of leading members of 
the Conservative and Liberal Parties in forming, in conjunc- 
tion with such members of his own Party as would come in, a 
united National Government. The King is believed to have 
made a correspondingly strong appeal to the Liberal and 
Conservative leaders. What is known is that Mr. MacDonald 
came at noon to the final Labour meeting, and at once informed 
his astonished colleagues that, whilst they were all out of office 
owing to his resignation, he had actually ‘kissed hands’ as 
Prime Minister of a National Government, which would confine 
itself to what was required to meet the actual financial crisis 
and would then promptly proceed to a General Election, at 
which the leaders of the three political parties, without any- 
thing in the nature of a coalition or a ‘coupon,’ would severally 
appeal to their respective followers.” 

The “Labour meeting” of which he here speaks is the 
meeting of the Cabinet; to that of the Labour party, the 
Prime Minister did not come. He had, by then, obtained 
the adhesion to the National Government of three of his 
late Labour colleagues — of whom Lord Passfield, needless 
to say, was not one; the party, with practical unanimity, 
rejected his action and went into Opposition, above all on 
the cuts in Unemployment, declaring that these sacrifices 
were unjust, economically harmful, and wholly ineffective 
to meet the situation. In so far as that situation centred in 
the drain of gold from the Bank, it went on, at an accelerating 
rate, after the formation of the National Government. Formed 
to protect gold, the National Government took Great 
Britain off the gold standard before it had been more than 


three weeks in existence. Mr. MacDonald’s pledge as to 
the brief duration of the new combination was more hon- 
oured in the breach than the observance. In the 1931 Elec- 
tion, he took the field at the head of mainly Tory cohorts to 
denounce Labour as out to “ruin the country.” 

In this nightmare phase, Lord Passfield had no share. If 
any member of the Cabinet of 1929-31 felt doubt as to the 
action he should take in the emergency, it was not he. His 
personal release from active political service he accepted, 
with relief; to his political faith or his political allegiance, 
nothing happened. For him, the 

“whole episode is a manifestation, which the world will not 
fail to note, and which the British Labour Party must duly 
heed, of the extraordinary strength of the position of the British 
Capitalist system, and the British governing class.” 

This is the first point he makes. He goes on, characteristic- 
ally, to accept this demonstration as a call to renewed work. 

“The shock that the Labour Party has received by the magnitude 
of its defeat may be expected to do it good.” 

A Party only twenty five years old was “prematurely born 
into governmental life.” Not only had it never come near 
to comprising a majority of the nation: “at no election, not 
even that of 1929, did it obtain the support at the polls of a 
majority of the wage-earning class.” Back, then, to educa- 
tion, to thinking, to propaganda; back, above all, to the 
development of “much more of that friendly social inter- 
course among fellow-workers in a common cause which so 
effectually promotes its success.” 

This article is signed Sidney Webb. In fact, for all pur- 
poses, of writing and speaking, of work and of intercourse, 
the smash of 1931 not only released, it made an end of Lord 
Passfield. Sidney Webb resumes the name and habit native 
to him. 



Russia is, of course, and above all for Socialists, the 
biggest question mark of the post-war world. As such, the 
Webbs fully recognised it. From 1917 on, they listened 
about Russia, read about Russia, learned about Russia, 
discussed Russia. There are enthusiastic pro-Russians in 
England who would deny their interest, and assert that up 
to 1932 when they suddenly discovered it, “they just left 
Russia out.” But the enthusiastic British pro-Russian can 
do with nothing less than a wholehearted and uncritical 
absorption such as he could not get from them on this, or 
indeed, on any subject. As a matter of fact, they were deeply 
interested, if also highly critical, during the nine years from 
1922-31 in which his immersion in active politics made it 
impossible for them to give it more than an attention that, 
while always alert, was naturally governed to a large extent 
by the reaction of Russian events on those in Great Britain. 

Then, in 1931, came the smash, and also the release. The 
release set them free for work; the smash compelled their 
minds to face the revealed weaknesses of the British form of 
representative democracy, and stimulated them to interro- 
gate its alternative. They determined to go and look at 
Russia. Whether or no he agreed with the grand gesture 
with which she threw Gradualism over board at a Fabian 
gathering in the early spring of 1932, one may not know; 
with her, too, the action was probably mainly expressive of 
bitter disappointment and temporary exasperation. Some 
disillusionment, however candidly faced and however 



courageously transformed into renewed effort, there must 
have been for both : its main effect however was to spur them 
to an undertaking of a really heroic kind. At seventy, a 
journey to Russia is no picnic. She fell ill during its course; 
on which her own comment was that it gave her a grand 
opportunity of studying Russian medical institutions from 
the inside! Real gallantry in their facing of the physical 
discomforts: a finer and a rarer form of gallantry in their 
acceptance of the mental discomfort of the obligation to 
look, at close quarters, at something at once new and possibly 
subversive. This high intellectual gallantry they have 
always shown. At going to look, they have always been 
exemplary. At no stage in their career does the observer 
find them with their heads either in the air or in the sand. 

Two less ostrich-like beings never existed. There may 
be things in human life which their eyes do not fit them for 
perceiving: but such as their eyes are, they have always 
used them. Each new phase in social policy: each new 
economic fact or tendency: each new evaluation of the 
conduct or object of existence, as it has come up in the 
course of their lives, has always found them alertly interested, 
full of intelligent curiosity, ready, nay eager to learn. 

They are not easily moved from their own position, but 
that position is an observation point, not a rampart. Never 
have they got themselves into the posture of high priests of 
a closed body of doctrine. Never have they ceased to test 
the fabric of their own, and other people's Socialist opinion. 
They really have got open minds. Most persons, even 
persons of infinitely less than their responsible eminence, 
regard with a hostility that, at best, is veiled, any fresh 
idea that may upset views to which they have committed 
themselves. Not so the Webbs. Thus, when Syndicalism 
and Gild Socialism rose on the horizon, in the years imme- 
diately preceding the war, they did not, like most other 
British Socialists, at once assume a position of harsh and 



condemnatory rejection of these presumed heresies; on the 
contrary, they proceded to make a most impartial and 
thorough study of them. They met their exponents, on the 
friendliest terms, as far as their own attitude was con- 
cerned (that of the exponents, of course, they could not 
regulate) ; and they incorporated such elements of the new 
dispensation as seemed to them, after genuinely dispassion- 
ate review, to be sound. The same patient readiness to 
study, to learn, to take in new light, to admit new points 
of view, to attend to new voices, marks their attitude to 
Bolshevist Russia. They fought the hasty and unconsidered 
swallowing of it whole by certain sections of the British 
Labour movement, from 1917 on; they never concealed their 
view that the forward march of Socialism in other countries 
was being hindered, rather than helped, by the tactics of 
the Third International; but they never had any other 
general view than that here was a big thing, a big challenge, 
that must be met and understood. Silly to shut eyes to it: 
sillier still to rush either into enthusiastic acceptance or 
rude derision about it. Some people might see it as likely 
to “blow the Webbs sky-high. ” What of it? If that were 
to turn out to be an accurate description, accuracy rather 
than the Webbs must be served; and they would be the 
first to say so. 

Any such expectation however could only be entertained 
by critics who insist on taking an entirely one-sided view of 
what the Webbs stand for. Democracy is certainly important 
in their plan of Socialism; but so is the fact that, always, it 
has been a plan. In the lecture on Socialism , True and 
False , which he delivered before the Fabian Society as far 
back as 1894, 1 in which he rejects all the varieties of what 
he calls “spurious Collectivism ” from Insurrectionism to 
Utopianism, he does so in favour of an orderly planning. 
He compares the Fabians to the Benthamites, and tells 
1 Reprinted in Problems of Modem Industry . 


them that “If we are to have anything like the success of 
the early Philosophic Radicals, we must be able, like them, 
to ‘explain in the large dialect of a definite scheme what are 
our aims and whither we are going 5 .” Planned action, the 
planned approach, the coherent programme — this is, from 
first to last, the essence not of their doctrine only but of their 
practice. He proved it, as a member of the London County 
Council. It was the master idea in the Campaign for the 
Prevention of Destitution of 1909 to 191 1. It is the key idea 
in Labour and the New Social Order , as in Labour and The 
Nation : in either case it was Webb who fitted that key into 
the lock. In season and out of season, through good report 
and ill, they stood for planning, in days when that word 
was not in common use. 

By 1931, and indeed for some years earlier, Russia 
had come to stand to the world not only or even mainly as 
one of the two great experiments in dictatorship, but rather 
as, primarily, the great experiment in practical planning. 
So much was this the case that, by 1931, many had forgotten 
dictatorship in their interest in and sympathy for planning. 
The Webbs were not likely to forget dictatorship, but were 
there in the world two persons likely to feel so keen an 
interest in, or so comprehensive a sympathy for, the Five 
Years Plan? 

They read, therefore; they studied; they prepared them- 
selves, before, in the latter end of May 1932, they took the 
final step of going to look. Their standard of preparation is 
immensely high. In the autumn of 1932, they published a 
small volume which they call Methods of Social Study . If there 
be anything of accident in the appearance of this volume, at 
the moment at which it did appear, the accident is a very 
happy one for the reader. Nothing could put him in a better 
position to appreciate the attitude they attempted to take 
with them to Russia than this guide on How to look. After 
a most illuminating disquisition, in the first chapter, on The 



Sphere of the Social Sciences , they pass, in chapter II, to survey 
the “ mental equipment of the trained investigator.” This 
chapter is pure gold: incidentally also biographic gold, 
since they have written nothing that tells one more about 
themselves. To the investigator, they give three warnings: 

“First, he must be able to focus his attention on what he sees, or 
hears, or reads. 

Secondly, he must be prepared to set himself deliberately and 
patiently to ascertain all the accessible facts about the social 
institution that he is studying; and not imagine that he can, 
until he has mastered these facts, discover the solution of any 
problem, or obtain any useful answer to any question that may 
have been in his mind. 

Finally, he must realise that he is biased, and somehow or 
other he must manage to discount this bias.” 

On attention, they are extremely suggestive. Its common 
failure, they point out, is due not so much to “intellectual 
dulness or slowness” as to egotism. True, the super-concen- 
tration of a Newton, an Edison or an Einstein implies 
genius, but 

“The absence of adequate attention for the ordinary work of 
research may be due to sheet egotism. Indeed, most people, 
without being aware of it, would much rather retain their own 
conclusions than learn anything contrary to them. . . . To 
be a good listener, you need genuinely to desire to hear what 
others have to say, rather than to utter what you have yourself to 
say. There is, in fact, a ‘ moral ’ defect at the root of the failure of 
most beginners to achieve discoveries. They fail, it has been said, 

* because they set out to prove something rather than to arrive 
at the truth, whatever it may be. They do not realise that a good half 
of most research work consists in the attempt to prove yourself wrong’.” 

That the student will not possess “complete intellectual 
disinterestedness” may, they say, be taken for granted. Bias 
there will be; learn therefore to know your own bias. When 
someone is described as “impartial” (above all in relation 
to political and economic questions) all that the description 


means is that the bias of the describer and that of the person 
described are in fact the same. 

In going to Russia, they were well aware, before they 
started, how necessary it wets to be on guard against the bias 
that, as they point out, everyone, in fact, takes with him, on 
going to any foreign land. As he put it in one of the lectures 
he gave, on return, 

“Going with an open mind is impossible. Irresistibly I found 
that I was looking to see what British ideas, or ideas of mine, 
they had incorporated. When I noted one such, I mentally 
ticked it off and said it was good.” 

Whereas, he went on, Russia in fact represents “a new 
civilisation, which our classes and categories and terms 
don’t fit.” 

To have seen the Webbs in Russia most of us, with our 
irrelevant sense of the humorous, would have given a good 
deal. They arrived to find Leningrad, somewhat inappro- 
priately, en fete, for a reception to the King of the Hedjaz. 
They were, like any other visitors, largely “taken about”: 
their journeys planned for them, their comfort attended to, 
so far as the circumstances made it possible. They found 
some minor aspects of life surprising enough: thus Mrs. 
Webb got into the papers with a reproof to the young female 
Communists for the use of lip-stick, just about the time when 
the young males of the same order were solemnly deciding 
that the wearing of a collar was not incompatible with the 
true faith. On the whole, however, they were, undoubtedly, 
thrilled. That is the note in their impressions that no one 
who has received any of them can possibly miss. But, after 
delivering a few lectures, they have now retired to write. 
Until their book appears, to attempt to set out in any detail 
what they think about Russia is, of course presumptuous 
and foolish. In what they have said and written since their 
return, they have, however, drawn an outline both of 
their approach and of their conclusions. 



They went, after years of general, and months of most 
intensive preparation. At any time in the early months of 
1932, a visitor to Passfield Corner found them in a sea of 
books on Russia — all of w hich they had read and analysed : 
possessed of elaborate charts they had drawn out, showing 
all the features of the complicated constitution; and equipped 
with a series of arguments, points and questions. They had 
selected their field of study — the institutions of the U.S.S.R. 
— and they knew so much about it that it might have 
appeared to most that they had little left to learn. They 
had theories, which they were going to test, and a really 
vast knowledge, which set those theories in their background. 
He had even learned a little Russian, but they were not 
relying on that. 

They set forth in the latter part of May, and spent sixty 
days in the country, travelling from the Baltic to the Black 
Sea, and from the Polish border to the Caspian. They saw 
the towns, the factories and some big State farms; they did 
not see, or try to see, the villages. In pursuit of their view 
that if you go to Russia, or anywhere else, you must con- 
centrate on something, and in conformity with their natural 
angle of interest, they concentrated on institutions. They 
left Museums and art alone ; they expressly left out of their 
view the Revolution, and the Terror. Into the argument — 
Can a country get to where the U.S.S.R. now is by any other 
route? — they have refused, so far, to be drawn. Every now 
and then they drop such a remark as: 

“People in Russia, even ordinary workmen, are very conscious 
that there are no Rights of Man — any more than there are in 

Against which may be set another remark: that of the old 
fisherman whom they asked whether he felt better off now 
than he had done, under the Czar? He was thoughtful; 
then he said 

u 1 


“Life is pretty hard: but, now, we get what there is.” 

In the main, they saw the “key people”; the people 
whose hands are on the levers. What they primarily looked 
at and sought to comprehend, was the actual working of a 
new form of democracy which cannot, as a “going concern,” 
be judged on its resemblances to or differences from, British 
democracy. British democracy, they found, is, by the 
Russians, dismissed as “atomised.” They defend their own 
form as ensuring “universal participation.” As he put it in 
his lecture to the Fabians, the people “are consulted no end, 
and they like it: but,” he went on, “the whole thing is 
settled over their heads.’* As they see it, four great concrete 
blocks constitute the structure of the Soviet State, and pro- 
vide, through an elaborately indirect system, for the represen- 
tation of the people. They elect, first, on a territorial basis; 
second, on a functional one, as Trade Unionists — (“Though 
in theory membership of a Trade Union is not compulsory, 
it is impossible to be comfortable without joining the Trade 
Union.”); third, and fourth, as consumers, either through 
the Consumers Co-operative Societies, or the Producers 
Co-operative Societies. The steel frame supporting these 
‘concrete blocks* is the Communist Party, which is “not a 
Party, still less, in any sense in which we know the thing, a 
Communist Party.” Behind that Communist Party — small, 
rigorously and repeatedly purged, entered by a most severe 
selective process, committed to an iron discipline, lies a 
moral code, still in the making, whose virtues and whose 
sins alike are social, as are its sanctions. The good Commun- 
ist does not drink or smoke ; he has only recently been per- 
mitted to wear a collar; if he wastes time on women, he is 
admonished, and knows well what admonishment means, 
since he lives in constant fear of “deviation” with conse- 
quent delation and expulsion. He — or she, since the equality 
of men and women is a solidly accomplished fact — is apt to 
be a “prig of the first water.” But he is animated by an 



exalted enthusiasm and a high devotion that resembles that 
which animates the member of the Salvation Army. This 
enthusiasm, and the belief in Russia, the hopefulness about 
Russia, which they sensed, everywhere, struck the Webbs 
prodigiously: they felt, as a sort of throb in the air, “a 
hundred and fifty millions of people, emancipated and 

Economically, they believe that the Russians “have got 
hold of the right end of the stick”: they will succeed, 

“they have taken the whole business of production and distribu- 
tion out of the hands of the producers, whether Capitalist or 
Trade Unionist, and put it into the hands of the representatives 
of the consumers.” 

If this is the position to-day, the fact that it is so, as he 
put it in one of his lectures, illustrates “the inevitability of 
gradualness.” The swing in Russian policy has, indeed been 
remarkable. They began by saying “All power to the 
producers.” Then, they abolished the Trade Unions, and 
sought to suppress the Co-operatives. To-day, the Trade 
Unions are regarded as indispensable; the Co-operatives 
are the fulcrum of the whole State economy, and the con- 
sumers, very properly, as the Webbs have always said, call 
the tune for the producers. To this position, the Bolshevists 
have been brought by the logic of events and of facts. It is 
the position, of course, which Mrs. Webb outlined in her 
little book on The Co-operative Movement (1891), and they 
expanded, later, in their big book on the theory of Consumers 
Co-operation (1922). Like the result or dislike it — and they, 
more or less feeling themselves in the position of parents, 
rather like it — it is the underlying reason which supports 
their judgment that 

“There is less chance of the Russian Government being over- 
thrown than of any other Government in the world being over- 


In an article — the first of a series he is to contribute — in 
the New York Times Current History , Sidney Webb puts the 
point very definitely. He describes it as “the most important 
of all the suggestions made by those who are in a position 
to know the truth about Soviet Russia”. 

“It is argued that investing the entire conduct and control of 
production and distribution, not in the producers as such, 
whether capitalists or trade unionists, but in the representative 
of the community of consumers, either governmental or co- 
operative, the Soviet system has almost unwittingly discovered 
the economic secret for which the world is searching. Only the 
conduct of industry by the consumers — who, as such, are not 
profit-makers — ensures an unhampered devotion to an un- 
limited increase of production and lowering of price. Only this 
control by the consumers (who as such have no interest in specula- 
tion or finance) allows escape from the altering booms and 
slumps of competitive industry. Only where the whole of pro- 
duction and distribution is undertaken by representatives of the 
consumers can the entire body of workers — whose standards will 
be safeguarded by their trade unions — be secured against 
periodical mass unemployment, which no trade unionism can 

On the economic argument it seems as if, in Soviet Russia, 
there need never be any involuntary unemployment. The con- 
sumers demands, with a continual rise in the standard of life, 
will, each year, outstrip the output of the producers. The very 
basis of the system, the continuous payment at prescribed rates 
of wages for work or training to the whole able-bodied population, 
automatically ensures an effective demand that can be counted 
on in its aggregate amount for the whole of each year.” 

In September 1932, Mrs. Webb spoke, as her husband had 
done a week or so earlier, to a Fabian Summer School; 
in the same month, she gave a talk under the auspices of the 
British Broadcasting Corporation. In October, they both 
confided their experiences to the Labour Party in conference 
at Leicester. In her broadcast address, Mrs. Webb summed 
up in a very carefully written passage — 

“Is the much talked of General Plan of the Soviet Union a suc- 
cess or a failure? Even if I were competent to give you an ade- 


3 01 

quatc answer — which I am not — I could not give it in a few 
minutes. But here is a tentative but carefully drafted conclusion 
which will, at any rate serve to start a discussion. I believe that 
Soviet Russia, if she can train in citizenship and productivity her 
hordes of peasants, say, up to the level of her twelve million trade 
unionists — a very big ‘if’ — has solved the economic problem. 
This has been done by eliminating the profit-making employer, 
and organising production exclusively from the standpoint of 
the consumption, by the whole people, of the goods and services 
produced by all the workers by hand and by brain. Under this 
planned organisation of industry it seems to me that the effective 
demand of the consumers will always out-reach production — as 
it certainly does in Russia to-day — and that the greater output 
due to scientific invention, and extended control over nature, 
will be continuously absorbed by the increased purchasing power 
of the able-bodied inhabitants, all of whom, under the Soviet 
system, are either at work or in training. Thus there will be 
neither over-production nor under-consumption; human faculty 
and human desire will be automatically adjusted, in a steadily 
swelling flow of commodities and services, checked only by a 
rising demand for increased leisure and the personal freedom 
implied in leisure; not leisure of the destitute unemployed or 
that of the idle rich, but the leisure which has been earned and 
carries with it full maintenance and a good conscience. 

Whether this equalitarian State — or, as the Communists prefer 
to call it, this ‘classless society’ — will be a desirable place to live 
in, whether it will be good or bad, I offer no opinion. It is the 
youth of to-day who will have to make the necessary efforts and 
sacrifices and risk the consequences; it is for them to decide 
‘Whither Great Britain? ’ In this quest they will do well to study, 
alike, in its failures and its success, the workaday experiment of 
Soviet Communism.’ * 

‘‘Automatic adjustment ”, here, is the phrase that gives one 
pause, and even makes one feel a little frightened as to the 
security of their description and their judgement. They, of 
course, saw, in the main, institutions, and had those institu- 
tions explained to them by persons working them, and 
believing in them. They saw a Plan, and they like Plans: 
are possibly disposed to see a plan and the execution thereof 
as one and the same. They found a society ordered and 
categorised, and they love order and run to categories. But 


how much did they, can they, see of the common humans 
through whom any plan has to be worked? There are 
suggestions, here, of a dangerously dropped link. There are 
trained and expert observers wholly sympathetic with the 
ideal of planning, who feel the gravest apprehensions lest 
the whole thing break down on sheer lack of elementary 
human efficiency; who note that in the new buildings, the 
bricks are badly laid, the door and window frames poorly 
finished, the electrical work crude; who see the shoddy of 
which the clothes and boots are made ; w'ho, after watching 
the work in the new factories, are “not surprised by com- 
plaints about tractors breaking down”. 1 The schematic eye 
may miss these crude facts; it is maddening to have system 
defeated by mere human incompctency; but these facts, in so 
far as they are facts, are vital elements in any considered 
judgement. It is disquieting to get the feeling given, so far, 
in their talks and lectures, that, for them, these things hardly 

On the other side — that of democracy — they did see much 
that they disliked and have not sought to extenuate. It 
would be interesting were they to put themselves, on this, in 
a position to compare Russia with Italy. Interesting; but 
not necessary'. For they saw and have not sought to deny 
or mitigate a total absence of freedom, a lack of variety, an 
iron clamp on the young mind, and an effective and oper- 
ative tyranny, justified by the continuance of “war con- 
ditions,” and evidenced in the universal presence of spies. 
As Mrs. Webb told a sympathetic interviewer, 

“Even in our casual contact with members of the Communist 
Party, the repression of free thought and free expression, in all 
that concerns the structure of human society, was obvious; it 
was in fact openly defended as a necessary Var measure* to 

l d. Tht Economist, October i, 8, 15. 



ensure national unity in presence of a powerful enemy at home 
and abroad. More sensational, but, I think more likely to dis- 
appear, is the occasional physical terrorism; the trapdoor dis- 
appearance of unwanted personalities; the ostracism and per- 
secution of innocent but inconvenient workers .” 1 

This “fanaticism and terrorism” will, so long “as it is known 
to go on and cannot be denied, discredit Communism in 
more developed countries”. So, while they have said that 
they found people “pleased at being consulted”: they 
themselves harbour no illusions as to the effect of that 
“consultation” on action, or as to its relation to the power 
behind the facade. As he put it, in answer to a question 
about criticism, “Es wird dafuer besorgt.” There is a 
Dictatorship. The Communist Party keeps the thing going. 

“Now it so happens that members of the Party occupy all the 
key positions, not only in the hierarchy of Soviets, Federal and 
National, but in the Co-operative and Trade Union Movements, 
whilst they dominate the army and navy, the political police 
and the militia. It will continue to be so, so long as the Com- 
munist Party retains its unity, its discipline, and its disinterested 
service, for the Party, through the control of all forms of publicity, 
whether books, newspapers, the wireless, cinemas and theatres, 
and also all forms of education, elementary, secondary and 
University, and by its continuous mass propaganda, cuts out 
from influence any other creed or policy than its own. Even 
more important is its hold on the youth of the U.S.S.R .” 2 

The Communist Party keeps the thing going; the drive of 
fanaticism provides the steam. 

At the same time, if they are asked — How does the soul 
fare? they can reply — How does it fare under Capitalism? 
So far, they have not been asked that by anyone; but one 
may be sure that, at moments, she puts that question to 
herself. Certainly, they were thrilled by something there — 
a sense of purpose, a readiness to accept sacrifice, a life keyed 
to a higher pitch of common consciousness than that of 

1 The Clarion . October 8, 1932. 

• The IJstmer , September 28th, 1932. 


Western Europe. That they think is there to stay; but they 
would be the first to say that no one can be sure about that. 
Do they think the U.S.S.R. way is the only way? They have 
not said that, or anything like it. What lesson, for us, they 
have drawn, they have not yet told us; but they will. 

Any account of their reactions must therefore break off 
with an unwritten chapter, or, one may hope, chapters. 
There is a Russian book coming: for that book we wait. 



There is another book for which we wait; the book in 
which she is to carry on the story begun in My Apprenticeship 
into, and through the various phases of, Our Partnership . 
Some readers, no doubt, and among them those who most 
admired and enjoyed her masterly spiritual autobiography 
will hold that the tale of the development of a single mind 
must, in its nature, be more interesting and arresting than 
that of the work and companionship of two people can ever 
be made. Further, they may feel that while the early book 
owes its compelling appeal to its frank introversion, the 
latter is bound, since it will also be about a person who says 
he has “no inner life,” to be unduly extroverted, and stuffed 
with the dry chaff of committees, conferences, problems, 
and all the dreary paraphernalia of public life. He, so she 
says, did not quite like My Apprenticeship ; indeed it was 
apropos of that book that he emitted a cry, of caution or of 
pleading, to any future biographer: “No intimacy, I beg.” 

Whether or no she heeds that call, the book, by most of us, 
is awaited with keen eagerness. Not because it will contain 
any “revelations.” There are, certainly, none to be made 
about two people whose record of effort and achievement 
lies singularly open before us, whose lives contain nothing 
that any biographer wants to gloze over or conceal, who 
have been, in all their ways and works, as candid as the day, 
and who have, in the ordinary sense, no secrets. None in the 
ordinary sense; and yet one that is haunting. For have they 
not discovered and applied the secret whose lambency, 



interpenetrating its pages, gives so rare a fascination to the 
Journal of Delacroix? Here speaks an individual in almost 
every other respect as distant from them as the poles, who 
yet is like them in that he knew, as they know, the secret 
of contentment; and in that he got it out of work, as they 
get it out of work. With them, — and this is an aspect giving 
to their achievement, and its record, even when set down 
from the outside, an interest that is unique — the work has 
throughout been done, and the contentment in it realised, 
in comradeship. It is the duality of the effort and of the 
content they know in it that makes them fascinating persons 
to study, for any student of psychology — and that surely is 
everybody who is interested in human nature. Here, one is 
in contact with success in the greatest and most mysterious 
of human adventures. Any success has its mystery; no suc- 
cess is so mysterious as success of this kind ; what we, des- 
pairing of more accurate analysis, call “success in living/ ’ 

Interest is deepened and mystery enhanced when, as 
here, it is success achieved, not singly, but together. Dela- 
croix was content in solitude ; there are, in the acquaintance 
of any of us, many cases of relative success in the business 
of living by oneself. Good as it is, that kind of content, it 
is yet a second-best, and secondary in proportion as it is 
less difficult. When one interrogates the experience of those 
trying the harder task, the business of living together, one 
is confronted with innumerable unhappy and yet inseparable 
pairs, the 

“Herzen die sich schlecht vertragen, 

Und dennoch brechen, wenn sie scheiden,” 

of which Heine speaks ; and hard set to it to cite one or two 
possessed of the secure contentment that radiates from the 

They have lived together for forty years, and made those 
years good for one another. Growing old has not blighted 


their temper, chilled their ardour or diminished their zest, 
any more than it has slackened their work. Disappointments 
have not soured them, or dimmed their 

“Cheerful faith 

That all that we behold ... is full of blessings.” 

They are not bored with themselves, or with other people. 
They have not, despite plentiful temptations, taken refuge 
in any variant of cynicism. They are as keen, in their 
seventies, as they were in their thirties; as capable, as their 
swift reaction to Russia showed, of being thrilled. 

They may be “queer people.” In some senses, they are. 
He has a queer absence of vanity, and of personal dignity. 
She has a queer lack not only of shyness but of any under- 
standing of its roots. Both are without certain sensibilities 
which those in whom they happen to be accute feel so vital 
that they cannot understand how persons as intelligent as 
the Webbs manage to exist without them. The Webb world 
lacks some attributes of what most of us call the “real” 
world, and their picture of it is simplified, perhaps artificially, 
by that lack. Sometimes this colour-blindness, if one may 
call it so, imparts a naivete, a fairy-tale element into their 
judgments. More often it operates as a kind of bleach. If 
everybody were like them, something of lustre, some- 
thing of poignancy, something of joy, would go; as well 
as a great deal of muddlement, of waste, of stupidity, of 
cruelty, and of ugliness. It would be rather a homespun 
world; but there would be homespun in it for everybody. 

She once, in a comparison she was drawing, with a 
characteristic large freedom of outline, between the Japanese 
and the Chinese, based her sense of the superiority of the 
former on the view that they possessed, and the Chinese did 
not, what she called “the three essentials.” She, always, 
generalises much more freely than he does ; she is responsible, 
therefore, for a larger proportion of quotable remarks. But 


although he once said that they found it best not to listen 
in on one another’s lectures, lest they be revealed as dis- 
agreeing, that, one feels sure, was mere playfulness. They 
really do think in “we,” in small as in large matters. They 
both think and act in “we” in regard to essentials. For 
them, therefore, and not for her only, one may take it that 
the “three essentials” are, as she put it, scientific method, a 
sense of public service, and an apprehension of the mystical 
element in life. As between Japan and China, on this, her 
comparison was sketchy, and is probably wrong; but the 
statement of values was illuminating. On any such test, 
they pass very high. 

Scientific method they have created in application to the 
study of social institutions. There, they are pioneers, and 
pioneers who have driven a path, nay built a road, along 
which those who come after may walk: do, to-day, walk, 
almost without knowing to whom they owe that freedom. 
In this field, their work is sure of permanence. Nor, thanks 
to them, can economics ever revert to its earlier ignorant 
arrogance of claim. To it, too, they hav e given a scientific 
approach, by compelling it to accept its own relativity. The 
scientific method they created, they have also applied, in 
works of lasting significance. On Trade Unionism and on 
Co-operation, as on Local Government in all its ramifica- 
tions, they are in no danger of being superseded. They have 
widened the sum of our knowledge, and clarified our vision, 
by a new point of view. Here again they are safe, for 

Of the sense of public service, they are the brightest living 
exemplars. There is a story which, if not true, ought to be 
true, to the effect that on their engagement they exchanged 
rings inside of which was incised the inscription Pro Bono 
Publico . Everybody who hears this story believes it, so 
accurately do the words prefigure their years of loyal and 
disinterested service. Whatever they have not seen, they 


have seen, and have held to, something outside themselves 
which they have served with unwavering and impersonal 
faithfulness. To this accepted ideal they have again and 
again made sacrifice. To it, they have given what was most 
dear to them. Up to 1914 they lived, in the main, very 
much as they liked, although in the Minority Report cam- 
paign there was a vast deal of sheer social drudgery which 
neither of them enjoyed, and he frankly detested. But from 
1914 on forces made themselves apparent in the public 
scene, which compelled increasing breaches in their plan of 
life and work. When he went into active politics, and, above 
all, when, in 1929, he consented, entirely against his strong 
inclinations and declared intention, to carry on the ungrate- 
ful task: to become a Minister again, and even a peer — then, 
they were giving up, for the public good, the most precious 
thing they had : their orderly routine of constant companion- 
ship. They suspended work which they enjoyed, and knew 
to be useful, for work which they did not enjoy and whose 
utility they doubted. They did this, simply and solely 
because to do so was demanded by their sense of public 
duty. It is quite true that they have a liking for many forms 
of activity which most people do not like : the drudgery of 
sustained research, the slow toil of conversion through per- 
suasion and argument, the sheer effort of intellectual 
unravelment. But, when the call came, they exchanged all 
this for a divided form of existence which was acutely dis- 
appointing to both, and relatively unproductive. 

At no time have they sought anything for themselves, 
the world’s rewards or its recognitions. They neither are, 
nor have ever desired to be, rich. They live with genuine 
simplicity: some would say with needless austerity. They 
have always, consistently, been givers rather than takers. 

This devotion is the fruit of no cold intellectual conviction. 
“It is to some feeling in the individual conscience that we 
must look for guidance as to how to use the powers that we 


possess.” So, in their latest published volume, they express 
their abiding sense of what she has called the mystical 
element in life. They believe in more than they can see or 
touch. Here are regions into which the “outside” biogra- 
pher will not seek to penetrate. 

They have been charged with inhumanity. Perhaps that 
is the word easiest to find to cover their strangeness. 
Strange, certainly, by the standards of average human 
accomplishment, is the unity of affection, will and action 
achieved by two beings, naturally markedly dissimilar, 
and strange, too, the unswerving steadiness of disinterested 
labour that old age in them finds unrelaxed. Yet must 
not any of us, regarding them to-day, feel that they are, as 
Cato said of Scipio Aemilianus, real in a world of shadows? 
If so, it is because they know their purpose, and have been 
true to it. 



Agricultural Settlement, Committee 
on, 187 

Alexander, A. V., 269 
Asquith, H. H., 12, 128, 204, 210 


Balfour, A. J., 12, 128, 130, 146, 147, 
187 188, 203, 204 
Balfour, Gerald, 188 
Balfour Committee, 270-1 
Barnett, Canon, 54 
Beer, M., 160, 168 

Belloc, H., and The Servile State , 21 1, 

Bennett, Arnold (quoted), 84, 85 
Bentham, F. H., 189, 201 
Bernstein, Eduard, 105 
Besant, Mrs. Annie, 8, 23, 35 
Bland, Hubert, 23, 35 
Board of Trade, S. W. as President 
of, 257, 269, 270 

Booth, Charles, 8, 10, 37, 56, 57, 58, 
65, 95, 1 12, 188, 189, 190, 194 
Brooke, Rupert, 198 
Browning, Robert, 20 
Burns, John, 10, n, 12,83, 106, 143, 
190, 204, 205, 208 


Campbell Bannerman, Sir H., 146, 
H7, *49> 190 

Chamberlain, Joseph, 7, 12, 49, 50, 
hi, 146, 147 
Census of Production, 187 


Charity Organisation Society, 3, 53, 
54, 189, 193, 194 
Clarke, William, 23, 35 
Cox, Harold, 23 
Cole, G. D. H., 36, 88, 213-218 
Creighton, Mrs., 61 
— , Miss, 76 

Colonial Office, S. W. in, 9, 20, 22, 
24 as H. M. Secretary, 274-287 
Co-operative Movement , The by B.Webb, 
60-66, 299 

Consumers ’ Co-operative Movement } 1 76— 
i79> 233, 235, 244, 299 
Constitution for Socialist Commonwealth , 
163, 233, 238-244 

Cunninghame-Graham, R. B., II, 12 
Crusade , The , 197-208 


Davy, J. S., 190, 193 
Decay of Capitalist Civilisation, 163, 
220, 233, 234 

Durham Miners, History of the t 255 
Dock Strike, London, 8, 94 


East Africa, 279, 280 
Education, London, 1 19-137; Acts 
of 1902, 1903, 125-130, 153 


Fabian Society, 23-37, 93, 113-117, 
i39> I 43> 148, 213, 214, 

239, 291, 293, 298 



Fabian Essays , 35-37 
Fabian Holiday, 33 
Facts for Londoners, 26, 33 
Facts for Socialists, 26, 33 


Galton, F. W., 74, 129 
Gild Socialism, 213-218, 292 
Gladstone, Mr., 9, 53, 102 
George, Henry, 8 
Gradualism, 241, 266, 291 
Green, Mrs. J. R., 66, 72 


Half Circle Club, 268 
Haldane, R. B., 12, 68, 128, 130- 132, 

Hampstead Dialectical Society, 13 
— , Historic Society, 29 
Harcourt, Sir \V\, 118, 140-1 
Hardie, Keir, 141-146, 148, 149 
Harrison, Frederic, 48, 102 
— , Mrs. Frederic, 61 , 65 
Henderson, Arthur, 221, 228, 237 
Heyworth, Lawrencina (B. YV.’s 
mother), 40-49, 69 
Hill, Octavia, 53, 54, 193 
House of Lords, 240, 274, 277 
How to Pay for the War , 229, 232, 249 
Huysmans, C., 238 
Hyndman, H. M., 10, 226, 227 


Labour Party, 31, 139-150, 154, 156; 
and Poor Law Reform, 199-208; 
and the War, 220, 229; S. W. 
on party Executive, 228, 229, 
236, 245, 263-270; as candidate, 
220, 232, 245-256 ; as M.P. 
256, 257-269 ; as Minister, 257, 
261, 269, 270 

Labour and The New Social Order , 237, 
238, 265, 294 
Labour and The Nation , 294 
Lansbury, George, 194, aoo, 215 
Lawrence, Susan, 272 
Lecky, W. E. H., 65, 98 
Lenin, 8, 90 ; on S. W.,217 
Liquor Licensing , History of, 153, 171 
Lloyd George, D., 206 
Local Government in England , The 
History of 138, 169-184, 187, 233 
Loch, C. S., 189, 191, 193 
London County Council 34, 35, 37, 
69, 78, 1 10-137, 254 
Londoner, S.W. as, 2, 16-18, 26, 

1 10-137 

Londoner University, 19, 21, 130- 
133, 220, 232 
London Education , 123, 137 
London Programme, The, 113, 115, 

London School of Economics, 133- 


MacDonald, J. Ramsay, 144, 148, 
149, 1 53* 203, 217, 221, 222, 
228, 262, 263, 268, 269, 273, 274, 
276, 286-290 

Mann, Tom, 10, 82, 83, 106, 21 1, 


Manning, Cardinal, 9, 43 
Marshall, Alfred, 60, 160, 1 6 1 
Marx, Karl, 8,11,29,56,93,94,105, 
160, 164, 244, 267 

Massingham, H. W., 34, 72, 1 14, 
140, 160 

Methods of Social Study , 163, 294-296 
Mill, J. S., 10, 20, 161, 166 
Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, 


Mitchell, John, 62-4, 95 
Morlcy, John, 12, 141, 150 
Morris, William, 10, 267 



Nash, Vaughan, 9, 65 
Newcastle Programme, 34, 139 
Olivier, Sydney, 13, 14, 22, 23, 30, 
35 . 75 

Osborne Judgment, 212 

Owen Robert, 100, 1 01, 160, 168, 267 


Palestine, 281-286 
Passfield Corner, 271, 272, 297 
Pease, E. R., 23, 35, 113, 119, 143, 
*44» *55. 215 

Poor Law, Royal Commission on the, 
1905, 185-208 

— , Minority Report Campaign, 

Principles of 1834, 186, 187 
Potter, Margaret (Mrs. Henry Hob- 
house), 45, 53 

Potter, Theresa (Lady Parmoor) , 53 
Potter, Kate (Lady Courtney), 53 
Potter, T. B., 151 

Potter, Richard (B. W’s father), 2, 6, 
38, 39-66 

Provis, Sir S., 189, 190 

Red Letter, 256, 270 
Reeves, W. Pember, 136 
— , Mrs. Pember, 155 
Ricardo, Law of Rent, 29, 55, 94 
Roseberry, Lord, 53, 128, 129, 132, 
136, 141, 149-151, 152 
Russia, Soviet, 63, 105, 272, 273, 


Sanders, W. S., 116, 132, 229 
Sankey Commission, The, 247-253 
Seaham Harbour, 254-256 


Shaw, G. B., 13-37, 76, 77, 107, 139, 
140, 143, 155, 156, 160, 266, 

Smillie, R., 222, 228, 245, 246 
Smith, L. Pearsall, 65, 72 
Smith, Sir H. Llewelyn, 9, 122 
Social Democratic Federation, 10, 
11, 25, 26, 93, 227 
Social Democratic Party, German, 
105. H3 

Sorel, G., Reflexions sitr la Violence , 


Special Investigation (Poor Law), 
192, 193 

Spencer, Herbert, 2, 7, 42, 43, 44, 

45. 58, 78 

Statesman , New , 207, 208 
Stead, W. T., in, 119 
Suffrage, Women’s, 6, 7, 61, 155, 210, 

Sweating, Select Committee on, 1888, 
59> 60, 95, 96 
— , causes of, 193 


Taff Vale Decision, 144, 153, 154, 

Taylor, G. R. S., 27 
Tawney, R. H., 247, 253 
Technical Education, Departmental 
Committee on, 187 
Tillett, Ben, 1 1, 83 
“To your Tents, O Israel!”, 

Towards Social Democracy? 230 
Toynbee Hall, 3 

Trade Unions, 6, 7, 60, 63, 66, 68 
in Russia, 105, 298-302 : History 
of, 9°> II0 > 217-245 ; Industrial 
Democracy , ibid 

Trade Union Law, Committee on, 

i53> *87 

Treaty, Versailles, 257, 264 
Trotsky, L., visit to, 272, 273 




Unemployment, 188, 189, 195, 196, 
257. 269 

United States, S. W.’s visit, 35, 113 
— , B. W.’s visit, 46 
— , joint visit, 138 
— , Constitution of, 174 


Wages of Men and Women — Should they 
be Equal ? 230-232 

Wakefield, H. Russell, 194, 198, 199, 

■- 1*' 

200 • 

Wallas, Graham, 13, 14, 22, 23, 29, 
3°> 35> 76,106,129,135,153 
War Emergency Workers’ National 
Committee, 222-229 
War, S. African, 113, 139, 145- 

— , The Great, 218-232 
Webb, Charles (brother), 17, 18 
— , Ada (sister), 17 
Wells, H. G., 79, 80, 86, 88, 154- 
157, 212 

Works Manager , The 229